Friday, April 25, 2008

What would Sterling accept at the Wekepeke?

In an editorial in yesterday's edition, the Times & Courier muses about possible uses at the Wekepeke and whether or not any use other than the status quo would be acceptable to Sterling. An excerpt:
Following closely on the heels of the unanimous vote to reject Nestlé was a unanimous vote to clarify the town’s legal control over the 564 acres and the waters they contain. Some possibilities: using the reservoirs for Clinton. Selling water to some other town. Breaching the dams. Selling house lots.

Some of these proposals would elicit vehement opposition in Sterling, for the same reasons the Nestlé deal did. Many Sterlingites would like to see the Wekepeke remain as it’s been for years: an unused water supply, protected from development and available for passive recreation.
Let's take the last point first. Sterlingites would like to see the status quo; it is the best deal for the town and its people. Clinton has to upkeep the land, repair the dams, and for the last 44 years has left the water in the Wekepeke reservoirs untouched as they have been taking water from the Wachusett. What's not to love about that set up?

But keeping the status quo isn't realistic, since Clinton doesn't have the money to repair the dams as mandated by law. Perhaps Representative Naughton will be successful in this year's attempt to secure state funding for the repairs, but it seems like a long shot considering the state's economic situation. (One could argue that if Clinton had been taking care of the dams on a regular basis over the last 44 years this wouldn't be an issue, but that's water over the dam, if you'll pardon the terrible pun). So let's look at the options mentioned in the Times & Courier and try to determine how Sterlingites would respond:

Using the reservoirs for Clinton. This was the original use of the reservoirs going back to the late 1800s. If Clinton were to begin drawing surface water again to supplement the water they take from the Wachusett, they would certainly be within their rights to do so. A daily draw of hundreds of thousands of gallons would lower the levels of the reservoirs, and I would expect that Clinton would restrict some uses (pets, boating, swimming or wading) to protect the purity of the water supply, but no Sterlinigte would have grounds to oppose that usage.

Selling water to some other town. While some in Sterling might balk at the idea (the original 19th century laws refer to the water being for "Clinton and its inhabitants"), there is a long history in the state of intermunicipal water agreements. Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella would love to have the Wekepeke as a back-up water supply. There is something nearly perfect about Leominster contracting with Clinton to take water out of Sterling, since it jives perfectly with Mazzarella's trend of disrespecting and disregarding Leominster's neighbors for Leominster's benefit. Even so, the impact would be no different than if Clinton used the water for itself, and such a proposal shouldn't be seriously opposed by Sterling.

Breaching the dams. This proposal would be controversial, but in the end I don't know how much opposition it would generate in Sterling. On the one hand, it would dramatically change the landscape. The reservoirs would be gone, it would take years for the land that was revealed to regenerate, and there would likely be significant costs associated with both the breach of the dams and the subsequent clean-up: there is probably 120 years of assorted debris and trash at the bottom of the reservoirs that would be exposed and need to be removed. And the town of Lancaster might have major issues with this proposal since the Wekepeke's only choke point would be at the Bartlett Pond at the bottom of Ballard Hill. The pond floods Route 117 once or so each spring as it is even with some semblance of flood control upstream with the current dam system. I wonder how often that route would be closed if all of the water from the brook backed up at Bartlett Pond every time it rained.

On the other hand, breaching the dams and returning the Wekepeke Brook to it's early-19th century flow would be the closest thing to true conservation imaginable. Environmental and conservation groups across the country have been advocating for the removal of dams and the restoration of waterways to their original flow. At the Selectmen's forum in Sterling last month, a representative of the Nashua River Watershed Association mentioned the removal of the dams as a possible solution they would support. This solution would call the bluff of any Sterlingite who opposed the Nestle project on environmental grounds (pollution, noise, plastic bottles, etc.). What could be more environmentally pure than this?

Selling house lots. Of the proposals, this is the only one that would (or should) elicit "vehement opposition in Sterling." It is also the possibility that is the most remote. In the end, I don't think Clinton would have the right to sell the land for development under state law, since it was allowed to purchase the land for a specific use and development wasn't it. Also, the possibility of developing the land may be off the table shortly if Clinton finally enacts a Conservation Restriction (not that anyone knows what might be in it). Further, it's not clear how much of the land is developable: Sterling does not have town sewer and much of it may be too wet for septic. And breaching the dams in an effort to build house lots (an idea I find absurd, but the Times & Courier included in its online poll, so someone must think it's viable) might be problematic, since wetlands usually have to be replaced if they are drained for development. Would Clinton just flood a different part of the land?

Ultimately, I would like to see the towns work together to preserve the land for recreation, either by finding a way to repair and maintain the dams or by returning the area to its natural state. That would cost Sterling some money, but it would be worth it. Further, I would like to see us work together to improve the land for recreation. Blaze some hiking trails, make it easier to drop a canoe or kayak in the water, maybe clear a spot for a few picnic tables...turn it into a municipal park and invite everyone to come. Let the Parks and Rec Commissions of both towns jointly maintain the area.

I've heard and read some comments that Clintonians don't get any benefit from the land because they don't use it. Well by all means, come on up. Bring your families to hike and explore. We want Clintoninans to visit us. How do you think Sterling can support three ice cream stands and mini golf and a petting farm and multiple pick-your-own orchards among other businesses? Because Clinton doesn't have any of those things so Clintonians come to Sterling to buy ice cream and play putt-putt. Believe me, it's in our interest to have Clintonians use the Wekepeke for recreation and stop at the Sterling Ice Cream Bar or Rota Spring on the way home to cool off with a frappe or a float.

Wouldn't it be nice to see the towns come to an agreement on preserving the Wekepeke? Sterling Selectman Sheppard and Clinton Selectman Pasquale could stand together, cut the ribbon to the Wekepeke Peace Park, then lock arms and lead the crowd in a stirring rendition of "Friends are Friends Forever" as happy families take to the reservation to hike it's trails and relax in it's shade?

Whoa, the heat must be getting to me. I think I'm the one who needs to get to Rota Spring to cool off...

Previous coverage of the Wekepeke:
April 11: What does the Wekepeke Restriction actually say?
April 11: Clinton does the right thing
April 9: Sterling should offer to buy Wekepeke at Nestle's price
April 6: Sterling selectmen to oppose Wekepeke plan, but to what extent?
April 4: Vermont looking to restrict Wekepeke-style projects
March 27: This can't be helpful
March 25: Tough decision ahead for Clinton
March 21: Nestle's proposal could change everything
March 21: Nestle nominated for "Corporate Hall of Shame"
March 19: Sterling Selectmen disappoint at Wekepeke forum
March 16: Sterling should oppose Nestle...the right way

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