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Councilor Wants Voters to Decide Whether to Tap Merrimack Mayor Says Drawing Water From River is Years Away but Must Be Studied Now

July 29, 2008

By Bill Cantwell, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

Jul. 29–HAVERHILL — It’s a $6 million question and one that impacts Haverhill’s future — from the size of its population to the services it can provide residents — so voters should decide on it, City Councilor James Donahue said.

He said the question of whether the city draws drinking water from the Merrimack River should go on an upcoming ballot.

Donahue and Mayor James Fiorentini have been sparring verbally over the mayor’s plan to draw water from the river to add to Haverhill’s water supply of lakes and ponds. Earlier this month, the mayor rebuffed Donahue’s challenge to publicly debate him on the need to tap the river.

Fiorentini said Haverhill will need the additional water to supply businesses that the city hopes to draw here in coming years. Donahue questions the quality and safety of Merrimack River water and said the city has all the water it needs.

Drawing from the river will allow for more population growth, Donahue said — from Haverhill’s current 62,000 to as many as 90,000. He said the city cannot afford related services, such as public protection and schools, that such a larger population would require.

Donahue also said the cost of the project — from testing for well sites to treating the river water and piping it into the city’s distribution system — is too expensive for a city that can barely pay its regular bills every year.

“It’s not a traffic or a pothole issue,” Donahue said. “It’s unique in nature. If the city’s going to go forward with this, the people should chime in on this.”

So far the city has drilled at test sites along the river near Haverhill Stadium. Donahue said if Haverhill does plan to go forward with tapping the river and pumping its water into the city’s water system, it must go to a vote of residents.

“I don’t think you decide this in a public hearing or by one man,” he said of the mayor. “They’re always talking about mayors being CEOs, but they should be caretakers of the environment. Why have a knee-jerk reaction to going into the river when you don’t have to?”

Although Fiorentini is driving the Merrimack study, he has stopped short of saying he supports tapping the river. His response to Donahue’s ballot question was essentially the same as his response to the debate challenge — that a decision whether to tap the river is years away so it is too early to be talking about debates and ballot questions.

“No decision has been made on drawing water from the Merrimack River, and no decision will be made until we have all the facts and all the testing is complete,” Fiorentini said. “Drawing water from the Merrimack is a long-term decision, and the permitting part of this alone would take several years to complete.”

The mayor has formed a task force to consider the matter and make recommendations at a public hearing when the study is complete.

“I continue to believe that long-term planning is in our best interests,” Fiorentini said. “We always want to be certain we have a safe and adequate water supply. We cannot wait until the last minute to plan and conduct tests. They have to be done now.

“We will continue to ask for public input and Councilor Donahue will definitely be invited to voice his concerns before the task force,” the mayor said.

Regional planners project Haverhill’s 62,000-person population will grow to nearly 75,000 by 2030. The 62,000 is a record for the city, which has had several housing booms in the last 20 years. The city’s population has jumped almost 20 percent since 1990.

Haverhill is 35 square miles, the fourth-largest area among Massachusetts communities. Much of the housing built in the last two decades is on land in the city’s outskirts, but more recent developments have focused on old downtown shoe factories. More than 800 apartments and condominiums have been built or are planned for downtown — projects that have the support of the mayor.

Donahue said estimates show it would cost Haverhill more than $6 million to draw water from the river — a project that is far too expensive for a city struggling to pay its bills every year, he said.

Although recent studies show the river is much cleaner than it was years ago, it still carries contaminants, Donahue said.

“Why do we want to have the Merrimack River water go into our pristine water system?” he asked. “Why do we want to mix those two?”

Fiorentini said the city needs a backup water supply, not so much for additional population but to support industry that is coming in now and is expected in the future.

The mayor said the state and federal governments require Haverhill to search for alternative water sources. He said drilling deep wells along the river, which Haverhill has done, tests one of those sources.

Haverhill’s previous population peak was in 1920, when the city had 53,884 people. It dipped to about 46,000 in the 1960s through the 1980s before beginning its current climb.

Haverhill now gets its drinking water from lakes and ponds, including Kenoza Lake and Millvale Reservoir.

Haverhill’s growth

Current population is 62,000, an all-time high.

Previous peak was in 1920 — 53,884 residents.

20 percent growth from 1990, when population was 52,493, to today.

12,000 more people predicted to live here by 2030 — bringing it close to 75,000.

Maximum buildout: 75,000*

With greater water capacity: 90,000**

*Estimated by regional planners

**Tapping the Merrimack River would provide enough water for this population, said City Councilor James Donahue

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