Town Meeting: In Colebrook, A Multimillion Dollar Showdown With Its 1880s Water System

Mar 6, 2015

Pulpolux via Flickr Creative Commons

As voters head to Town Meetings on Tuesday one of the major issues in the North Country will be infrastructure repairs. That’s an issue Kevin McKinnon, who runs Colebrook’s water department, knows all too well...

A few years ago McKinnon was looking at a hydrant that had recently been removed from Main Street.

He was chipping through decades of paint to get to a part when a date began to emerge: 1884.

“I was a little shocked.”

 It was a clear reminder that Colebrook’s system was installed around 1880.

And the problem with such a vintage system?

At least 70-percent of the water leaks back into the ground.

“That makes us have the distinction of being the leakiest system in the state of New Hampshire,” says Becky Merrow, Colebrook’s town manager.

And during the town meeting Tuesday evening she and other officials hope two thirds of voters approve Article # 2,

Article 2 authorizes spending $6.5 million to replace infrastructure, including the water lines and then repaving Main Street which is also Route 3 and the major route going north.

Colebrook, which has about 2,300 residents, has already secured state and federal assistance that will cover all but about  $3 million.

But that is only if the project is approved during town meeting. Otherwise the grants will go to other communities.

That’s why town manager Becky Merrow is pushing hard for its approval.

“This project will never be cheaper for the town of Colebrook. It will never be less expensive.”

Merrow says the cost works out to about $95 a year for somebody with a $100,000 home.

For years the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services – which is concerned about water conservation - has  urged the town to fix the problem.

And Colebrook Selectman Jules Kennett frets about the possibility of a failure so catastrophic that there wouldn’t be any water.

“Then we hang the shingles up because we just don’t have the money to replace the piping and do the repairs that would be necessary.”

Standing at the counter in Hicks Hardware, Cindy Hicks says the project would disrupt traffic and could hurt business.

But she says it is something the town needs to do and the new pavement and sidewalks will make the town more attractive which will be important if the nearby Balsams resort is redeveloped.

Colebrook is not alone in the North Country in voting on money for infrastructure issues.

"Statewide that is an issue, the infrastructure. It is never visible so as long as people can turn on their faucet or get a drink or flush the toilet and way it goes. They are not worried about it," said Ed Samson, the town manager in Lancaster.

Voters in Lancaster will consider a $4.7 million bond to stop storm water from running into the town’s sewer system where it is unnecessarily treated as waste.