2018 Candidates for Acton Water District Board of Commissioners

The Acton Water District is an independent government entity, separate from Acton Town Government. As such, it is led by a Board of Water Commissioners, analogous to the Board of Selectmen for the Town of Acton; both serve as the legislative bodies for their respective entities. The three Water Commissioners are elected officials, who serve three-year terms of office. In the upcoming Town election, two candidates will be competing for one available Water Commissioner seat: Len Phillips and Erika Amir-Lin.

The Water Committee of Green Acton posed a set of six questions to the two candidates, intended to help voters make more-informed decision. The questions and the candidates’ answers are shown below.

Town election day is Tuesday, March 27; polls are open from 7am to 8pm. AWD Commissioner candidates appear on the same ballot as the candidates for Town of Acton. To find your polling place, look here.

Questions for the 2018 Candidates for
Acton Water District Board of Commissioners

From the Green Acton Water Committee

(1)  Please tell us about yourself and why you are a good choice to be an Acton Water District Commissioner.
Len Phillips:

I have had the honor of serving the Town of Acton since shortly after moving to here in 1976. First, as an appointee of the Board of Selectmen, I served on the Planning Board, Long Range Planning Council, and Merriam School Re-use Committee. This service provided hands-on insight into the dynamics of development in Acton.
At the urging of a citizen’s interest group—Acton Citizens for Clean Energy (ACES) I ran successfully for election and have served as a Water Commissioner in the Acton Water District from 1982, with a hiatus from 1985-1988. During this period I participated in the first SuperFund issue involving W.R. Grace and the threat to the Assabet Wellfield.
Through my service, I have proudly been part of a unique and precious tradition of open Town Government.
And I have been enriched manifold by serving. Even my small contribution to the Town has been woven into the fabric of its history and set a pattern for its future. I have learned firsthand the difference between what is “Necessary” and what is “Preferred” in a democratic context.
My professional credentials include a Masters Degree in Geology from Brooklyn College and experience as a high school science teacher, on the Editorial Board of MIT Technology Review, and other technical editorial posts.

Erika Amir-Lin:

I am licensed professional geologist with 14 years of experience in the earth sciences, currently working as a hydrogeologist at AECOM in Chelmsford, MA. In my role at AECOM, I work with a variety of municipal clients in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I assist my client towns in finding and testing new sustainable drinking water sources, including the state permitting process. Previously I have worked doing contaminated site remediation, geotechnical site investigation, and construction oversight. I also worked for the US Geological Survey as a seismic hazards educator and have done extensive volunteering with youth-focused science outreach programs.  I have spent a lot of time helping my professional clients with their water concerns, and I want use that experience to serve my own town, investing my time where I live. I bring a fresh perspective to the board of commissioners, one informed by industry best practices. I believe that good communication is one of the keys to good planning, and I want to improve the way the Board of Commissioners goes about both by taking a more active role in outreach to the community and interfacing with the Acton Board of Selectmen I am committed to advocating for the long-term protection of Acton’s valuable and limited water supply. As commissioner, I will dedicate myself to preserving our common resource through policies based on data and geared toward sustainability.

(2) What are the biggest challenges that face the Acton Water District in the next 10-20 years, and what steps should be taken now to prepare for those challenges?
Len Phillips:

The most imminent threat to the District is the chemical plume approaching the Assabet Wellfield from the former Nuclear Metals facility in Concord. This is the second time a threat to this wellfield, which provides approximately 40% of our total water capacity. In the 1970s the Assabet Wells were threatened by pollutants from the W.R. Grace site from the north. The resolution of that precedent Superfund site was resolved with close cooperation between the Selectmen and the AWD Commissioners. The Nuclear Metals issue has also become a Superfund site threatening the same wells, but this time from the south.

Erika Amir-Lin:

AWD faces a number of daunting challenges. We are not the only town in the region to face these issues. The most pressing of these challenges are adapting to the changing and increasingly unpredictable rain and snowfall frequencies that accompany climate change, properly planning for continued population growth within Metrowest, and proactively finding and permitting new water supply sources.
All three of these challenges need to be addressed through visionary long-term planning, which necessary involves frank discussions with all parties involved in the future vision of Acton as a town. AWD should identify key parcels of land on which future wells could be sited and take steps to protect that land now, before it is developed. AWD needs to cultivate a data-driven understanding of the Town’s development goals, and create a set of water-use scenarios for various levels of additional development in town. Additionally, town-wise water conservation strategies should be developed, above and beyond what currently exist for summer watering restrictions.

(3) Please discuss the pros and cons of having a Water District independent of town government, versus having a Water Department that is part of town government. For towns like Acton that have water districts separate from town government, how can the town and water district best work together?
Len Phillips:

The Acton Water District was established by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1912 as an independent municipal entity. As such, the focus of the District has been solely on the supply of potable water to the Town, as well as for the purpose of firefighting. Fiscal independence from the Town has enabled the District to address issues affecting the quantity and quality of the water as well as the infrastructure to distribute water throughout the Town.
District Commissioners are citizens of the town elected to their posts by our neighbors, as are the Selectmen. Both Boards have a common goal of assuring the highest quality of services are provided to all in Acton. We have worked together through the years by attending each other’s meetings and cooperating when a common threat looms. An exemplar of such a threat was the resolution of the W.R. Grace Superfund issue, which arose in the late 1970s. Through productive and cooperative communications, treatment and restoration of the site was planned and implemented.

Erika Amir-Lin:

There are many advantages to having a water district instead of a department. The water district is a separate chartered entity, having its own governance structure, finances, and decision-making apparatus. This separation allows the district to run as a business, and make financial decisions with autonomy and agility. Budgets can be developed and refined without having to go through the whole-town town meeting, and the water department has more flexibility to make strategic decisions about what equipment to purchase. Additionally, since a district is entirely beholden to the water customers it serves, it is able to operate to serve a single mission – to maintain and deliver a clean, reliable water supply.
A few disadvantages should be noted, however. Some districts, particularly very small ones, have found that their financial independence reduces their ability to borrow money for large capital projects. Additionally, a district does not have the ability to access additional public works staff in case of a large project or emergency, the way that a water department might be able to gain assistance from the highway or sewer department.
When a town operates with a water district, well-defined channels of communication need to be established between the board of commissioners and the town government. It is important for the AWD to take clear positions on issues of importance to the district, and be able to advocate for those positions, thus avoiding guesswork or misrepresentation of AWD’s positions by other town entities. An advisory board such as Acton’s WRAC may be able to provide observations or lessons learned on what forms of communication have or have not worked for Acton in the past.

(4) A probable human carcinogen, 1,4-dioxane, is entering Acton’s Assabet 1 well from the Starmet/NMI Superfund Site. What actions do you think the AWD should take in response? Consider possible actions on a one to ten year timescale, and please explain your answer.
Len Phillips:

The District is aggressively addressing this threat by engaging with state and federal authorities to assess the potential impact of the plume from the Superfund Site—including the dimensions, the concentration magnitude, direction and timing of the impact. In addition, we are researching effective and proven treatment protocols and have provided space in the new state of the art South Acton Treatment Plant to implement the advanced filtration that will be necessary to remove the key pollutant, 1,4 Dioxane from the water drawn from the aquifer. This pollutant is highly miscible in water and the treatment will involve an advanced oxidation process including UV radiation. This process has not been widely used yet, and we are communicating with a water district using a similar process in another state.

Erika Amir-Lin:

As with all emerging contaminants, of which 1,4-dioxane is one, the primary management strategy should be close monitoring of concentrations. This allows the water district to keep a close on the risk level and take timely action to shut down the well temporarily if necessary. AWD already samples quarterly for 1,4-dioxane, and concentrations at the treatment plant do not exceed the allowable level set by Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. On a longer timescale, AWD should pursue two courses of action. The first is to continue to be involved in the clean-up and remediation of the plume. The second is to investigate advanced water treatment options. These would be systems that AWD would operate to remove 1,4-dioxane from the drinking water before it leaves the treatment plant. The state of the science both for remediation and water treatment is evolving and active research is ongoing. AWD should stay informed of treatment options as they become feasible and available and consider what the financial feasibility would be of operating an experimental treatment system.

(5) The AWD Water & Land Management Advisory Committee Report on Conditions for Possible District Expansion warned that population growth and development in Acton could put the Town and the Water District in the position of not having sufficient water from AWD’s current set of wells. What additional water sources might AWD seek, and what are the pros and cons of each?
Len Phillips:

The District currently serves 6,662 customers with groundwater drawn from 11 active sources, consisting of 36 individual wells throughout the town. All are located in the Concord River Basin. The Mass. DEP limits the District to withdrawing an annual average of 1.94 MGD. Average daily demand ranges from about 1.6 MGD during the winter to 2.6 MGD during summer.
The revised 2018 AWD Master Plan (currently in final draft) projects population growth in Section 3, based on numerous sources. Population growth is only one factor in forecasting water demand, but it is central to others, such as business growth and school expansion. Table 3-11 shows population growth from 1950 to 2015 for Acton and 7 neighboring towns.
The following graph, Fig. 3-1 from the Master Plan, plots population growth based on University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute projections. Note the relatively slow growth rate from 2015, with an estimate of about 23,000 in 2035.
This projection illustrated in Fig. 3-11 does not signal the need for extraordinary measures in terms of demand, given the effectiveness of water conservation measures and the reduction of “nonrevenue” water use from leakage to only a few percent of total output. Figure 3-71 below illustrates the nearly 20% decrease in per capita usage that has been achieved since conservation measures were enforced a decade ago. If necessary adjustments to these measures, along with educational outreach will be employed to achieve even greater reductions in use.

1 from the draft 2018 AWD Master Plan; used with permission

Erika Amir-Lin:

1) Explore for and develop additional well sites in town. This is the easiest option to pursue, and the one that needs most immediate action. Previous geologic studies identified areas of town that might be suitable for development as water supplies. Drawbacks include the cost of exploratory drilling and eventual construction of permitting of supply wells, and the possibility that once-ideal sites have been partially or totally built on since they were initially identified.
2) Pursue regionalization with one or more neighboring towns, allowing for sharing of water resources. This option allows for flexibility and creative use as several towns will be able to share resources and balance usage between an increased number of wells and/or surface water supplies. Drawbacks include surmounting local political opposition to water sharing, the creation of new governance structures, and costs associated with installing new piping for cross-connections that may not exist now.
3) Connection to MWRA water. The main advantage is that this would provide long-term stability in terms of supply. Drawbacks include the substantial cost for connecting and the associated infrastructure, and Acton’s loss of control over rate structures. Additionally, even large reservoirs can be subject to the effects of prolonged drought, and as rainfall patterns in New England become less predictable, depending solely on reservoir supplies may be less reliable than in the past.

(6) The MAGIC climate resilience report predicts that under the influence of global climate change our area will experience more precipitation, but concentrated into more severe storms and with an increased ratio of rain to snow. In addition, we are likely to experience more frequent droughts and less groundwater recharge. What actions should the AWD take to prepare for this future?
Len Phillips:

The response to conservation measures illustrated in Figure 3-7 in combination with an educational outreach through Water Words, the press, and school curricula is the optimal means of achieving decreasing demand per capita through a new discipline of water conservation rooted in enlightenment of the population. As I write this, nearly two feet of snow is falling on eastern Massachusetts—a bounty for recharge and evidence that suggests a tempered assessment of global climate change.
The Concord River Basin embraces our fundamental sources of ground water. Given the unknowns of climate change, good stewardship of that precious resource, upon which life itself depends, is the responsibility not only of the District, but also of the population of Acton. We have experienced the effectiveness of raised awareness as recorded in Figure 3-7 to reducing water use and face the future with confidence.


Erika Amir-Lin:

This is an area where conservation has a strong role to play. It is important for residents and businesses to take small actions like installing low-flow toilets, showerheads, and upgrading to efficient washing machines. AWD should continue to encourage those changes, while also working towards conservation on a larger scale. Like many other suburban towns, water usage significantly increases in the summer, as people choose to water their lawns. It is possible that our region will eventually experience summers where heavy water restriction is the norm, rather than the exception. AWD should prepare for this by developing a more aggressive watering restriction scheme, accompanied by the kind of large-scale education efforts which saw success during the drought that California recently experienced.
AWD needs to assess the overall resilience of their wells in the face of more regular droughts, identifying which wells are most vulnerable, and exploring what new supplies could be developed and brought online.

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