The town of Pittsburg is revamping its public water system.
It’s been a much-needed project; the issue came to a head in 2009 when the town was put under a boil order for several months after E. coli was detected in the drinking water.
But the town still needs another half a million dollars to finish the job.
When Rick Skarinka of the state’s drinking and groundwater bureau met with Pittsburg town officials, he decided blunt was the best approach.
“We all sat in a room and said Pittsburg is the worst municipal system in the state. And when you say something like that, it gets people’s attention.”
In 2010, the state Department of Environmental Services ranked the town’s system as the highest priority municipal water project in New Hampshire.
The state-issued boil order went into effect in July of 2009.
That order was lifted later that year, after the town came up with a temporary fix of disinfecting the water with chlorine.
As Pittsburg’s town water manager Richard Sargent says, there was little debate about the need.
“The old water system was put in I believe in the late 50s and 60s and some of it is actually…I won’t say completely rotted away, but some of it is quite old and corroded.”
The new system is a point of pride for those involved in the planning.
We leave the town office and hop in a pickup truck, as Sargent and project engineer Mike Duffy bring me to the new pump station.
As we take the ride along Route 3, the main road in town, you see a fresh, path of gravel in front of the houses.
“This is all the water main, it was put right underneath where you see it dug up there,” Duffy says.
“The water main comes up from down under the river, it’s bored underneath the river,” says Sargent.
Sargent says the project is a huge improvement.
“Our old system was heavily chlorinated so there was a lot of chlorine in the water. This has less than half of the chlorine that the old system had in it. So that’s a positive thing.”
But there’s a hitch – the town needs another $500,000 to get the new water line extended and get everyone on line.
The system is meant to serve the 80 customers in the downtown village; that includes two businesses and town’s K-12 school.
Space wise, Pittsburg is enormous, covering nearly 300 square miles; it’s the largest town in the Northeast.
Most of the roughly 800 residents are still on their own water system.
The new system is for people like Verna Masters, who is sitting on the porch of the house she’s lived in since 1971.
“It needed to be done. We needed some cleaner water.”
She’s not hooked up to the new line yet, but expects to be soon.
A new water meter has been installed in her basement.
But she says the project hasn’t come without issues.
The unfinished gravel strip along her front lawn has made for great terrain for four-wheelers going up and down the road, kicking up dust.
“That’s what we’ve been putting up with all summer.”
Not everyone in town thinks it was worth the effort.
“It’s the biggest waste of money I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Bing Judd, the former Coos County commissioner who’s held nearly every position there is to be held in Pittsburg.
He says the town needed new water, just not a new water system.
“The town could have done it. We wanted to drill wells for everybody. And we could have drilled all the wells in town, everybody’d have their own for a half a million dollars. Now we’ve spent two millions dollars and we still ain’t got it.”
The town has kicked in $500,000 toward the project.
The Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program has provided about $1 million in grants and loans.
And Duffy says the Community Development Finance Authority provided $500,000 in grant funding.
“We’ve been discussing doing a new application to either of those agencies next year to try to finish the project, to replace all the piping.”
He says the project required drilling 350 feet underneath and across the Connecticut River to get the water from the pump house in Clarksville to customers in Pittsburg.
“Two new groundwater wells have been put in, there’s a new pump station with a treatment system to remove iron and manganese, and there’s a 50,000 gallon storage, water storage tank.”
Town officials are confident they’ll find the money to finish the job and get everyone hooked up.
Meanwhile, Rick Skarinka in the state’s water bureau says he’s pleased the town found a solution.
“We saw Pittsburg as really needing to make the investment, not just for current, but for future generations.”
He says he’s now working with the North Country town of Errol, which now ranks at the top of the priority list.
That town is looking at a $1.7 million project to upgrade a water system serving roughly 175 people.