MANCHESTER -- Earlier this month, voters in Salem and Windham anted up $6.1 million between them to guarantee access to something they’ve never needed in the past — water from Manchester.
Towns as far as 25 and 40 miles away could soon be relying on Manchester for their drinking water, according to state and city officials who are negotiating a framework that will guarantee a water supply in the Salem area for generations.
The state signaled it will approve an estimated $27 million in grants to install new infrastructure and upgrade existing water distribution systems, work needed in order to deliver the Manchester water to the Salem-area towns. The grant represents the single largest project so far from the trust fund established by the $236 million verdict against ExxonMobil in 2013 over MTBE groundwater contamination.
Meanwhile, Manchester Water Works is testing water drawn through a 70-foot-deep radial collector well, the first of its kind in New Hampshire. The well draws water from below the bed of the Merrimack River.
Manchester Water Works plans to eventually build a $22 million water treatment plant nearby on the west bank of the river near Exit 10 on Interstate 93.
Officials say that treatment plant, with a capacity of 7½ million gallons a day, will allow Manchester Water Works to guarantee enough water to supply Manchester, its existing customers in suburban towns and the Salem-area towns with a stable, plentiful source of water.
Historically, Manchester Water Works has relied on a single source, Lake Massabesic, to provide its water.
Philip Croasdale, director of Manchester Water Works, said the deal will allow Manchester to build its long-planned Merrimack River water treatment plant for virtually nothing. Once everything is built out, 45 percent of Manchester water would be sold outside the city limits, he said.
“The water’s there. We have the capacity to pump the water. That’s why we have one of the lowest water rates in the state,” Croasdale said.
He predicted that access charges, reserves Manchester has built up and water sales to the Salem-area towns will pay for the treatment plant.
However, a crucial aspect of the agreement — the price that Manchester will sell its water — has yet to be agreed upon.
Salem is about 25 miles from Manchester. Plaistow, which would be at the end of the pipeline, is about 40 miles from Manchester. A convoluted route would take up to 3.1 million gallons of Manchester water each day through the Water Works network that services Londonderry customers and then into water systems in Derry, Windham, Salem, Atkinson and, finally, Plaistow.
Some residents in those towns are struggling with wells contaminated by MTBE and other contaminants, said Clark Freise, assistant commissioner at the Department of Environmental Services.
The DES has installed filters on 52 private wells in Plaistow that were contaminated with MTBE, and Salem lost a public well that provided 1 million gallons of water a day because of contamination, he said.
Freise praised Manchester Water Works for its professionalism, for its foresight in protecting its water supply and for planning years ago to build the Merrimack River treatment plant.
He said the DES considered alternatives for the Salem region, including buying water from Massachusetts sources or the Nashua-owned Pennichuck Water Works. The Manchester option was less expensive than Massachusetts and offered the best alternative to address contamination from MTBE, PFOAs and dioxane, which the state recently started to regulate, he said. These contaminants have been linked to a raft of health issues.
Like Croasdale, Freise said capacity fees and water sales to the towns would cover most of the cost of a Merrimack River water treatment plant. The trust fund from the Exxon-Mobil verdict will also provide low-rate financing for the plant, he said.
Freise said negotiations are underway with Manchester Water Works and the towns over what price Manchester will charge its new customers.
The price is important because Manchester is locked into a long-term contract with Derry that charges a lower price for wholesale water — $1.14 for 100 cubic feet — than it charges retail customers in Manchester, $1.55, Croasdale noted.
“It was set up by an agreement in the 1980s,” Croasdale said.
Retail customers outside Manchester — those who live in Bedford and Londonderry, for example — pay $1.77, a 15 percent premium allowed under state law.
Croasdale noted that Sen. Chuck Morse of Salem, the Senate Republican minority leader and the chairman of the commission that oversees the Exxon trust fund, is involved in the negotiations.
He said a proposed agreement — which would also cover issues such as drought management and fluoridation — could go to the Board of Water Commissioners within the next couple of months.
Croasdale said the water drawn from the new well — which is 16 feet in diameter — has less organic material and is clearer than Lake Massabesic water. Technicians have been testing the water over eight weeks to determine what filtration process will be needed for the new treatment plant.
“Eventually, when the water gets into the distribution system, there won’t be any differences in quality,” he said.