What happened at the Acton Water Workshop?

On September 22, 2018, Acton held its first “Water Workshop.” Representatives from the Board of Selectmen, the Acton Water District, Town staff, and selected Town committees worked together in small groups to consider five scenarios about possible future developments related to water in Acton.

The half-day workshop was organized by the Water Resources Advisory Committee (WRAC), and facilitated by Sarah Bursky of the National Park Service Wild & Scenic Rivers program. All five Acton Selectmen attended, as well as staff and Commissioners from the Acton Water District, the Acton Town Manager,  town staff from the departments of Planning, Public Works, Land Use and Fire protection, representatives from the Acton Town Finance Committee and Planning Board, State Senator Jamie Eldridge, and members of the public.

The goals of the workshop were:

  • The Board of Selectmen (BOS), Acton Water District (AWD), and WRAC collectively define the most important information needed in the Water Resource Study to make decisions about protecting quantity and quality of water while meeting the Town’s water needs over the next 20 years.
  • Attendees develop a shared vision for how the study will support good decision making and help people do their jobs.
  • Attendees leave with more knowledge about the complexity of water resource issues affecting the Town.
  • All attendees feel they positively contributed to the content of the study and were heard with regard to vision, hopes, and concerns for Acton.

The Water Study referred to in the workshop’s goal statement is the “long-range (20-year, future-looking) study to establish the Town’s quantitative water needs, risks to the security and quality of its water resources, and the measures needed to protect those water resources” that was supported by a unanimous vote of Acton Town Meeting in spring 2017. The Sept. 22 workshop was part of a phase 1 effort; a full-scale Acton water study has not yet been authorized or funded.

The workshop began with the participants gathered in a large semi-circle in Room 204 of Town Hall. Town Manager John Mangiaratti, Senator Eldridge, and a WRAC representative offered welcomes and encouragement, and AWD Environmental Manager Matt Mostoller presented an illustrated tutorial about Acton’s existing water system. After an ice-breaker to get everyone talking to each other, the facilitator launched the group on the day’s work. The intent of the day, she said, was not to come up with solutions or answers, but rather to “get curious,” to think about what questions would need to be answered in order for Acton to be in a good position to respond to various future water scenarios that might emerge.

Leadership of Town Government, the Acton Water District, and members of the public during the opening session of the Acton Water Workshop.

The participants then scattered around the building, joining their assigned small groups, to wrestle with various scenarios. Each of five breakout groups included a BoS member, a WRAC member, an AWD person, a Town staff member, and in some cases, a Town board or committee representative. After 45 minutes on the first scenario, working groups were shuffled so that each person got to engage with a different scenario, with different colleagues, and each scenario was considered by multiple groups. A sixth breakout group was made up of a dozen-plus members of the public, and was facilitated by Green Acton Water Committee Chair Kim Kastens.

WRAC had crafted the scenarios to be realistic but not real, so as to foster free-flowing, creative thinking without the urgency of looming crisis. The five scenarios were:

  1. Water Consumption at Limit: The rate of water consumption in the Town of Acton is at the amount of water pumping that is permitted by the Commonwealth’s Water Management Act (WMA).  A developer who currently owns a number of multi-unit dwellings in Acton is proposing to build an additional 150 dwelling units on a parcel of land that he currently owns in Acton.
  2. Contamination: Contamination enters a 3-well wellfield and renders 2 of the 3 wells not useable for the foreseeable future. The source of the contamination has been traced to a recently permitted business located within a Town of Acton Groundwater Protection District Zone 3.
  3. Development in Technical District: A large organization wants to construct a number of buildings in Acton’s “technical district,” where they will house their new campus. Because many people will be located within this new campus, a number of eateries have been included in the design, as well as a very large laundry facility to service the campus. It appears that this new campus will require large amounts of water and will discharge a very substantial amount of wastewater. The irrigation requirements for the new campus are not yet clear.
  4. Neighboring town: The Town of Stow approaches the Town of Acton to seek a mutually beneficial public water supply. Today, some homes and businesses in Stow are serviced by a few private/public water suppliers. The majority of the remaining parcels are served by individual private wells.
  5. Wastewater discharge: The Town of Acton needs to site another wastewater treatment discharge site to accommodate disposal capacity for a neighborhood of failing septic systems. A large parcel of land, in close proximity to this neighborhood, has been identified as a future water supply well site.

In the “Members of the Public” breakout group, questions flew fast and furious.   That breakout group used sticky-dot voting to decide which of the scenarios to discuss. Scenario #1 received the most votes, followed by a near-tie between scenarios #2 and #5, so these three were discussed.

The public break out group chose which scenarios to discuss through sticky-dot voting.

Questions that emerged in the public group discussion of Scenario #1 touched on:
• whether it would be possible to require or incentivize the developer to make water savings on her/his/their other properties so as to free up water capacity for the new development
• under what circumstances might it be possible to get an increase in the Town’s WMA permit allocation from MassDEP
• how much more water would the Town need to accommodate full build-out under current zoning laws

Concerning the contamination scenario (#2), the public group wanted to know:
• more about how that  business had been permitted
• what lessons might be learned so as to decrease the chances that contaminating businesses would be permitted in the groundwater protection zone in the future

For the wastewater scenario (#5), the public group (who pay both taxes and water bills) wanted to know how the costs associated with this scenario (and the other scenarios) would be split up. This final scenario also sparked questions about viable sites in Acton for additional wells and additional wastewater discharge sites: are there such sites, and if so, where?

After the second scenario session, the whole group reconvened. The large post-its on which the breakout groups had collected their questions were stuck up on the walls, where they spanned halfway around Town Hall’s largest meeting room. After a few minutes of reflecting on how the process had gone, and participants joined in a “Gallery Walk” to circumnavigate the hall and read the questions written by the other groups.

Gallery walk allowed attendees to see the questions generated by other breakout groups.

After the Gallery Walk, the full group reconvened to share some final reflections on each scenario. Facilitator Sarah Burksy summarized some desires she had observed emerging from the discussions: rallying around a common vision, clarifying processes, and identifying needs. Finally, WRAC Chair Ron Beck sketched out how the committee will digest the full set of questions and ideas coming out of the workshop, and craft a Water Resource Study proposal for consideration by the Board of Selectmen. An informal lunch was then served, and long after the workshop had officially ended, clusters of Acton folks lingered in animated discussion — about water and the future.

Correction:  Added “Department of Public Works” to the town departments represented at the workshop. KK 24sep2018.

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