Residents sounded off their opinions during a public hearing Thursday that addressed a proposed Board of Health regulation that would update rules for installing and maintaining private wells in Manchester. The central issue is whether the town can impose similar restrictions on homeowners who, at their own expense, install and maintain an independent water source that mirrors regulations for public water operators.
The proposed rules would apply to the estimated 140 existing and future Manchester wells. They would update the current regulation drafted in 1984 governing wells that BOH Chairman, Peter Colarusso, characterized as overly broad and inadequate to meet today’s public safety challenges for water.
The draft regulation, largely based on a 133-page Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) template regulation, includes a series of state-recommended rules governing private well installation, routine testing, and reporting that have been legally and scientifically vetted. These are all in the BOH draft regulation, which would mandate regular testing for hazardous chemicals such as PFAS, as well as natural contaminants like coliform bacteria, E. coli, nitrates, nitrites, Ph conductivity, sodium, and iron. The regulation requires a baseline test for well owners to establish contaminant levels, with subsequent testing required every ten years if levels comply with state and federal standards.
Public concern Thursday heightened in areas where the BOH tightened restrictions beyond the state’s guidelines. A big issue gets to the heart of Manchester water supply itself, specifically an added provision that private well owners would be “required to comply with the same conservation efforts as homes and properties on public water supplies, especially with regard to drought restrictions. If there is a water ban for irrigation, it also applies to well owners.”
This didn’t go over well with some residents who said water supply issues are irrelevant for many well owners. Stephen Kasnet of 1 University Lane called it a “manifest injustice” to subject private well owners to regulations demanding the same drought-related conservation as homes using municipal water. Kasnet pointed out that, in the 40 years since installing a private well for drinking water and irrigation, the Select Board allowed irrigation from well water and recommended erecting a lawn sign indicating the water source.
Alan Wilson of Spyrock Hill, a retired environmental trial lawyer and a board member of the US Audubon Society, went further, contesting the impact of his private irrigation well on Manchester’s water supply. Citing an Oct. 2023 letter from Scott Horsley, co-author of the 1990 water study of Manchester, Wilson emphasized that wells outside the DEP’s wellhead protection zones have no impact on public water supplies.
“Private irrigation wells that are not located within the Gravelly Pond watershed or in close proximity to the Lincoln Street well and within the Zone II area will not interfere or compete with the public water supply sources,” Wilson said, quoting Horsley’s October letter to Manchester ConCom Chair Steve Gang.
“These regulations are contrary to the town’s own hydrology expert opinion,” Wilson continued. “They aren’t rational in that respect and are arbitrary and capricious.”
Wilson’s home is within Zone 3 of the DEP’s protection area.
Though lacking a well, Mark Weld of School Street strongly supported exempting well owners from conservation-related drought restrictions, suggesting that private wells might one day alleviate demand on the public water supply.
“It is entirely possible that the creation of such wells in the future may provide the same benefits, provided that the sourcing is for the most part independent from that of the public water supply,” Weld wrote.
One element of the BOH regulation that has been largely misunderstood addresses the chlorination of well water. When a well is open to the elements, the chances of contamination are high, so the DEP provides detailed guidelines for drillers and installers to chlorinate and then thoroughly flush a private well before it’s closed. In fact, chlorination takes up a large portion of the state’s template in the section governing installation and renovation of wells rather than a routine practice, as some concluded after reading the BOH regulation. Wendy Hansbury, Manchester’s Health Agent, acknowledged the language in the regulation could be misinterpreted and assured one resident that chlorination is an industry best practice designed for public safety.
Boards of Health are designed to collaborate closely with the Massachusetts Dept. of Health and the DEP because they serve as the local regulatory agent for various public health issues. The BOH inspects restaurant and camp food safety, conducts vaccine clinics, oversees mosquito spraying, and oversees residential septic system permitting, among other things.
And, of course, the BOH also regulates private wells, ensuring proper siting (away from septic leaching fields, livestock pens, or major public water resources) and requiring contamination testing.
The exact number of private working wells in Manchester is unknown, but estimates suggest around 140, with many built before 1984. Approximately 60 wells are used for potable drinking water, while others serve irrigation or fall under the category of “agriculture” involving livestock. The BOH is currently adopting a software platform that will document all of Manchester’s septic systems and wells, including testing and compliance status.
The Board of Health will hold another public hearing on its draft private well regulation in late March, and the BOH will likely incorporate some of the feedback from Thursday’s hearing. After that, the board may vote to adopt the regulation, and if it passes by a majority vote, the regulation will immediately be in force.