Town of Franconia Water System Improvements

By Lori Duff

The turning point, many residents believe, in the Town of Franconia's water system improvement project happened during the 2009 Town Meeting.

In its 247-year history, the town had never approved a bonded project, not even a couple hundred dollars for a fire truck, and now the water committee was asking for $3.85 million.

"This is the North Country," said Selectman Rich McLeod. "There is an innate resistance to debt or taxes or bonding. It takes a hard sell in order to have a project like this accepted by the community."

The town had committed $99,000 the year before to hire engineers and design plans for a new water system, but that was money it already had. So when the town water committee stood up to address residents at the Town Meeting, no one had any idea which way the vote would fall.

Showing samples of 80-year-old pipes, rusting and filled with sediment, the committee detailed deficiencies in the town's 1930s-era system. They included water pressure so low that the system was unable to be flushed, leaving deposits to collect in the pipes and posing issues of public safety for the fire department. Additionally, the old, unlined cast iron and galvanized steel pipes were deteriorating, causing water loss, poor water quality, slightly corrosive water and chronic discoloration. The engineering of the system itself posed problems with lack of available storage and structural problems with storage reservoirs.

"They couldn't clean the pipes until this project was done," said Water Commissioner Marcia Graham. "What do we do when we have a nursing home in town and we open a hydrant and they have no pressure?"

With a slideshow including photos of clogged, small diameter pipes and documentation from as far back as 1948 describing problems in the system, the presentation concluded the team's work, which had been ongoing for more than four years.

The committee had also painstakingly arranged a funding package through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development for a $2.267 million loan and $1.983 million grant totaling $4.25 million, supported by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Their work paid off. After all the votes were counted, the town approved the project by a vote of 115 to 14.

Rural Community Assistance Partnership
One project advocate, Bob Morency with the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), was especially happy to see the vote pass. Morency has been working with the town since 2000 as a resource for community projects involving water.

The RCAP is a nonprofit organization funded in part by the USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Any small rural community is eligible for free assistance with RCAP. Their services fall in the following four areas: improving environmental and community health, developing sustainable water and waste-disposal facilities, increasing the capability of local leaders to address current and future needs and being in compliance with federal and state regulations for utilities.

The RCAP is a service-delivery network whose programs help communities that are seeking to specifically build, maintain or expand their water and wastewater infrastructure. They provide on-site technical assistance, training in the financial, managerial and operational areas of water and wastewater systems, educational resources and financial resources.

Every year, more than 150 RCAP specialists based in RCAP's six regional partners provide assistance to more than 2,000 communities in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of the communities they assist are economically disadvantaged and have populations under 2,500, and many have significant minority populations.

"We help communities start from scratch, plan projects or help them get grants," said Morency. "[Capital projects] aren't easy, especially in small places that don't have engineers on staff."

Franconia's Water Structure
In Franconia, two events coincided to bring water to the forefront of the resident's minds-a 2006 New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) sanitary survey that documented deficiencies with their system and the commencement of the 2008 master planning process.

The board of selectmen knew that infrastructure was important to the well-being and economic growth of the town, and they decided it was time to act.

They already had a water commission, made up of three residents who dealt with the routine work of the town's water system. To focus specifically on the large-scale project, the two groups created a water committee.

The town water commissioners had already begun efforts to modernize the water system by installing individual meters for all town residents and businesses. Before that, the town had 33 different rates for water usage and no clear-cut system for fees-but, without the coordinated efforts and financial support of the town, it had been difficult to address the underlying system problems.

With the DES report and master planning process underway, everyone was ready to get on board. The selectmen and commissioners took the issues to the residents at the 2008 Town Meeting, and they voted to appropriate the money to hire an engineer and create a plan for the system.

The town interviewed and chose the engineering firm Stantec. Rene LaBranche was the head engineer for the project and became an invaluable resource and friend to the town.

Stantec created a preliminary water system evaluation and recommendations, which then allowed Franconia to search for funding options and begin grassroots efforts in the community to create a buy in for a new system. Public meetings and hearings were held throughout the process and continued to highlight issues with the current system and the need for a new one.

By the pivotal 2009 Town Meeting, momentum and financing for the town's largest capital project in its history were set in place.

USDA Rural Development Water and Wastewater Program
Early on in the process, the group headed down to the USDA Rural Development offices in Concord to learn about their federal Water and Waste Water Loan and Grant Program.

"It's very important for applicants to contact Rural Development at the earliest possible stages of planning in order to determine the maximum assistance that can be offered," said USDA Rural Development Area Director Gregg MacPherson.

The program offers funding to develop, extend or improve water and wastewater systems in rural areas. Eligible applicants include public bodies (towns, villages or special purpose districts) or nonprofit associations located in communities of 10,000 or less. Applicants must also show they are unable to afford commercial credit.

Projects that may be funded include water improvements (source, storage, distribution, treatment, meters), sanitary sewer (collection, treatment, combined sewer separation, storm sewers), solid waste disposal (transfer station, incinerator), new systems, renovations, expansions, purchase of an existing system or "buy-in" fees to existing systems. Soft costs, such as engineering, legal and interim financing interest, can also be included in the funding package.

"The Franconia project was a perfect fit for our mission to provide clean potable water for the community," said MacPherson. "This was a great project and great people to work with. The group itself had a lot of volunteers who really invested the time and worked diligently to bring the project together."

For Franconia and all of New Hampshire, loan terms are limited by state law to 30 years for water and 30 years for sewer, with the interest rate based on the median household income of the service area.

Grants may be available to supplement loans if two factors are present: the service area is determined to be low income, and the projected user rates will be unreasonably high. In order to determine if a community is eligible for a grant, it must submit the following: total project cost, projected operating costs, repayment schedule of any existing long-term debt, number of equivalent users and amount of other funding proposed.

Free technical assistance is also available through Rural Development staff, the Granite State Rural Water Association and RCAP. Assistance is available to: provide operations assistance for existing systems, identify and evaluate solutions to problems, advertise for and select a consulting engineer, assist applicants with the Rural Development application process and provide income surveys.

The Franconia project drew on a number of community resources, including DES, RCAP and USDA Rural Development specialists-not to mention the expertise of Stantec's LaBranche. Water committee members also contributed their unique combination of skills, including the financial skills of retired banker Bill Downey and Jeff Woodward, the technical skills of Richard "Mac" McLachlin, the leadership skills of Chairman Jim Hamlin and the negotiation and public relation skills of retired teacher Graham.

"This was a true public-public partnership. From town to state to federal government, if there hadn't been cooperation on every level it probably wouldn't have happened," said McLeod.

Part of the town's success hinged on its ability to utilize federal stimulus funds-which were no longer available after the 2010 fiscal year.

"It was perfect timing," said McLeod. "It could probably never happen again."

The Plan Rolls Out
With the funding secure and the bond vote passed, Franconia worked to implement its water plan. Improvements included the construction of a 350,000-gallon concrete storage tank, booster pump station and new water distribution piping. The primary transmission main through the village was replaced, and the six-inch line on Main Street was replaced with a new line to service both sides of the road.

It's been a trying time for the town, with construction underway most of last year.

"It was a long summer," said Sally Small, administrative assistant to the board of selectmen. "Everyone in town will be happy when we don't have a lot of heavy equipment sitting on Main Street."

As of February 2011, the project is nearly complete with small projects and spring cleanup remaining.

"This water project is going to allow the town to grow," said Graham. "There is land around that people would like to develop but they couldn't. People want to be on the water system."

The new system is also set to benefit companies like Garnet Hill, which might want to expand for future business. All that is set to fortify the town's tax base-which pleases long-term residents.

"We have a reliable water supply and that's huge in terms of what it means to the town," said McLeod. "It brings the town into the 21st century."

Adds Morency, "They are set for two generations."

Lori Duff is a freelance writer, working on behalf of the USDA Rural Development. For more information on USDA Rural Development funding for municipal water and other projects, contact Mark Koprowski, New Hampshire Water and Environmental Program specialist, USDA Rural Development, by email or by phone at 603.223.6057.

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