Amherst farmers seek to minimize water charges

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 11, 2017, by Scott Merzbach

AMHERST — Charging farmers sewer fees for water used to irrigate crops, hydrate livestock and wash equipment is an expense raising concerns for some with agricultural enterprises.

With the Agricultural Commission still considering the best way to address the issue, a member of one Amherst farming family approached the Select Board last week to suggest changes.

Veronica “Ronnie” Wagner, whose family runs a farm on North East Street, said that assessing sewer fees for water not going into the system is outdated.

“My goal is to have farms be appropriately billed for their sewer use and not solely based off of water consumption,” Wagner said.

It’s a difficult expense, she said, especially for farmers that don’t have their own water sources, such as wells or ponds.

“To have to pay for sewer charges which aren’t used, on top of having to pay for water that is a necessity for the livelihood of agriculture, ties up monies that could be used to rebuild wells,” Wagner said.

The town currently charges all customers on the systems for both water and sewer use by taking a reading from the water meters in homes and businesses.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he is sympathetic to the concerns that handling fees this way is increasing the cost for those involved in agriculture. But town officials have to figure out how to proceed using best practices, he said.

“It’s a bigger conversation,” Bockelman said. “I totally get why farmers and those who raise livestock feel aggrieved by this.”

The easiest way to address the issue would be to have farmers install a second meter that only tallies the water used for irrigation, Bockelman said. Some communities allow a second meter, but this is not considered a best practice by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Bockelman said.

Other communities have wrestled with the issue in the past. Easthampton, for instance, allowed second meters that only took readings on irrigation water until 2009. Hadley, with a number of farms, charges less for agricultural uses and allows second meters strictly for irrigation.

Bockelman said the Select Board intends to use information from a report from Tata & Howard environmental consultants about implementing so-called block rates, which state officials are encouraging, that would charge users who consume more water higher rates. That would also fit in with the efforts to adopt new regulations to address the drought that was faced last year.

The town’s Agricultural Commission has been unable to make a recommendation for a solution agreeable to farmers, even though water and sewer rates have been on agendas in recent months.

“The issue is complex due to the drought conditions we faced last year, as well as the uncertainty about the new federal regulations concerning crop irrigation and preparation of food products for market,” Chairwoman Rebecca Fricke said in an email.

But Fricke said the commission has been assured that the town is tracking water use and that farm water use will be considered when water rates and other restrictions are put in place.

Changing the way Amherst calculates sewer bills has support from the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, which sees this as a matter of fairness. A letter was sent to the Select Board noting the sewer bills put a financial burden on farmers.

“We urge you to work with the farms in your community to ensure that sewer fees are only charged for the volume of gray and black water which enter the sewer from the farm,” Brad Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Marlborough-based bureau wrote.

Mitchell said in a phone interview Thursday that the water not returning to the sewer system is calculated in some towns by estimate, with others actively metering. In both cases, this total can be deducted from the sewer bill.

But he adds that sewer fees are a rare concern, since most communities with significant farmland are in rural areas without sewer.

Using drinking water for farm-related activities is a lesser concern.

Edmund Coletta, a spokesman for Mass DEP, said farms are allowed to use drinking water for their animals and crops, and no new rules were put in place in 2016 when much of the state was in drought.

“There are no restrictions on using potable water,” Coletta said.