Acton’s Health Department and Water Quality

Water is essential to life, and thus to health. Here in Acton, the Town Health Department oversees many water-related activities and entities. It attends to public and private wells, swimming pools, and the NARA Pond swimming beach, potential sources of groundwater contamination (including septic systems, underground storage tanks, and two Superfund sites), and potential sources of surface water contamination (including car washes, stormwater runoff, and “manure compliance”). The department also interfaces with the Acton Water District concerning water quality in the public water supply, and with the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District for water quality testing in the schools.

On June 9, 2019, the Green Acton Water Committee (WC) welcomed Sheryl Ball, the Director of the Town of Acton Department of Health, to our regular monthly meeting to discuss issues at the intersection between public health and water. Linked here are the slides from Sheryl’s presentation on the department’s responsibilities, shared with permission: 

Green Acton Sheryl Ball 9jun2019

Following is a sampling of the points in the discussion that WC members found particularly interesting:

Surface Waters

  • The Health Department tests water at the NARA Pond swimming beach weekly for E. coli; there has not been a closure since 2017. 
  • The Department also tests Fort Pond Brook and Nashoba Brook quarterly for fecal coliform bacteria and nitrates.


  • All new private wells, including those intended only for irrigation purposes, must be tested for water quality. Private wells used for household water supply are required to be tested every year for bacteria and every three years for chloride, color, hardness, iron, manganese, nitrate, odor, pH, and turbidity. 
  • All new private wells are required to be bedrock wells, unlike the Acton Water District wells, which tap into the shallow overburden. 
  • The Health Department enforces a moratorium on all private wells, even for irrigation, within 500 feet around the WR Grace Superfund Site. 

Potential Contaminant Sources

  • In Acton, septic systems must be set back 75 feet from the nearest wetland in groundwater protection zone 4, and 100 feet in groundwater protection zones 1, 2, and 3. This is more stringent than the state regulation, which requires a 50-foot setback.
  • In Acton, septic systems have to be four feet above the water table in groundwater protection zone 4, and even higher in the other groundwater protection zones. Because groundwater levels fluctuate, the Health Department uses a combination of modeling and observation of the level of soil staining to determine groundwater level in evaluating and approving septic systems. 
  • Underground storage tanks (for example, for diesel or heating oil) are supposed to be removed after 20 years of use. The Health Department sends a staff person to witness any such removal in order to assess whether there have been leaks from the tank into the surrounding ground. 
  • Carwash events (for example, school fundraisers) need permits, must use biodegradable products, must notify the Acton Water District, and must be held in areas approved by the Board of Health (e.g., grassy areas where runoff does not go directly into the stormwater system.) 

Who Does What?

  • The Health Department implements Acton Bylaw U, which deals with excessive or contaminated flows into the MS4 (municipal separate stormwater system) from everyday sources, such as sump pump discharge. In contrast, the Department of Public Works implements Acton Bylaw X, which deals with discharges into the MS4 during construction. 
  • The Board of Health is a Town body, comprising vetted volunteers from the community, which works with the Health Department.  In contrast, the Health Department  is a staff department of Town government. 
  • Among the Health Department staff, environmental issues are the particular concern of Senior Health Inspector Evan Carloni, who has a BS in Environmental Science from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 


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