No matter what size, all water companies must comply with cost of regulations

Small might be beautiful, but when you’re talking about public water systems, it’s also expensive.

“In the last 15 years, the cost to operate and maintain a small water system has gone up, way up, due to the fact that there are more water-quality parameters that are regulated,” said Bruce Lewis, owner of Lewis Engineering in Litchfield, who has spent 20 years in the waterworks industry.

“If you don’t have many customers, to spread the cost, it’s hard.”

Consider arsenic, which naturally enters much of New Hampshire’s groundwater as it percolates through granite bedrock. The federal limit of 50 parts per billion, in effect since 1942, was lowered to 10 ppb as of 2006, forcing many public water systems to upgrade, including very small ones.

“As testing gets more refined, water-quality requirements follow suit,” said Marco Philippon of Pennichuck Water Works, which owns scores of small water systems around the state.

There are plenty of them to own: Roughly 80 percent of the more than 700 so-called community water systems in New Hampshire serve fewer than 500 people, according to the state. But their customers deserve protection from arsenic, too.

“If you’re classified as a small public water supply – serving 25 or more people – compliance is essentially the same as it is for the city of Nashua system,” Lewis said.

This situation extends beyond treating arsenic and is hardly new.

New Hampshire is nearing the end of a five-year process to figure out how to help these small public water systems, which usually serve private developments, generally from a single private well.

For three systems in the Nashua area – a Milford housing development, a Hudson mobile-home park and a Wilton private school – help is coming more quickly because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or federal stimulus funds.

“I’m sitting at my desk right now filling out some of the ARRA paperwork,” Mike Wisniewski, plant manager for High Mowing School in Wilton, said recently.

The private boarding school will get $44,000 in low-interest loans, half of which will be forgiven, to do such things as put in new underground lines and upgrade treatment for uranium from granite, which can naturally affect New Hampshire groundwater.

Wisniewski said the work is needed not because anything failed, but because the 65-year-old boarding school’s system was reclassified and had to meet public water-treatment standards.

“We probably should have been classified a long time ago,” he said.

At the 220-home Hudson Mobile Home Estates, $112,000 in funding will go for work to develop a second well, as well as improved piping and storage tanks.

In recent years, “we’ve basically rebuilt our whole well system . . . and now we’re being required to put in an additional well and do some work,” said Frank Cole, business manager of the firm that operates the park, as well as a number of mobile-home parks in Massachusetts. “It is very, very costly.”

The third local stimulus-funding recipient is Ashley Commons, a 29-house cluster development built two decades ago. Pennichuck Water Works, which owns and operates the development’s water system, is using $450,000 to complete a connection to Milford’s town water system.

Pennichuck, best known for owning Nashua’s water system, owns and operates scores of such independent systems, which draw water from wells for multiple users.

“Nashua has got 22,000 service connections. We have some (independent systems) that are as small as six service connections,” said Philippon, of Pennichuck. “All systems need to meet these same requirements.”

The problem of keeping water quality high when customer base is low has long been recognized, said Sarah Pillsbury, administrator of the Drinking Water and Groundwater Bureau at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

Back in 2003, she said, a “whole slew” of bills about groundwater quantity and quality were introduced into the Legislature – so many that a legislative Water Resources Committee was established.

“Basically, from the first meeting we said we need to develop a plan to make sure we have good quality water and enough of it,” Pillsbury said.

This spring, that program culminated in public-outreach sessions in Concord, the Lakes Region and the North Country, following similar outreach to water experts and to state and local policymakers.

All of this feedback will be part of a report for the state Legislature later this year.

Small water systems are only part of what it will cover – the thorny issue of land-development practices and their effect on water quality will be a major aspect – but they will be included.

The difficult issue will undoubtedly be cost, but recognizing the scope of the problem is important.

“We need to look at things on a regional and watershed basis,” Pillsbury said.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or