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Who’s Watching Your Water?

Dino Eliadi ’72 and Phil Guerin ’82 explain what it takes to keep Worcester water drinkable, plentiful, and affordable.

By Joan Killough-Miller
Photography by Patrick O’Connor

In an old brick building on East Worcester Street, just off Shrewsbury Street, Phil Guerin ’82 and his boss, Dino Eliadi ’72, work to safeguard Worcester’s drinking water. They do daily battle against the usual challenges: microbial pathogens, chemical contaminants, water main breaks (old hat, to them), and the occasional phone call about “funny-looking” water. They also face newer pressures—from real estate developers, environmentalists, terrorists, and an increasingly vigilant public.

Eliadi calls water the “blue collar” of utilities. “People don’t flinch at paying $30, or even $50, a month for cable TV. But water is their most important utility. They think you just turn the tap and it comes out,” he says. “You could find ways to live without electricity, and surely without cable. Water, there’s no option. You have to have water.”

Guerin, a buff of Worcester’s rich industrial heritage, says, “The roots of the water profession are on the construction end. Back then, you fixed the leaks and made sure the water was flowing. Water quality and public education weren’t on anyone’s agenda. It was a ‘silent industry.’ The less people knew, the better.”

Today the picture has changed, with vigorous daily testing and mandatory reporting to consumers. “Our ability to find things in the water today is far ahead of our ability to understand what those things may mean for public health,” Guerin elaborates. “The big challenge for water systems now is trying to get the public to understand that just because we detect 1.5 parts per billion of this or that doesn’t mean it’s anything new—or that it’s causing anyone any harm.”

Safe Water

“We have people who swear that back in the 1930s, Worcester water was the best in the world,” Guerin says. “Looking back, we know that there were certainly bacteria, viruses, and parasites swimming in it, but no one knew about those things.”

Those who bad-mouth Worcester water today may be recalling the past, when excessive bacterial levels made headlines, and local water was banned on train routes and airplane flights out of Worcester. Ever since the city’s new treatment plant in Holden went into operation in 1997, advanced disinfection processes have reduced the need for chlorine while improving protection against microorganisms. The result is safer, clearer, better-tasting water.

“What comes out of the tap now gets compared to bottled water,” says Guerin. “If it’s not as clear as Poland Springs, we hear about it.”

The general public, Guerin says, has high expectations for its water. “At the same time, people don’t expect that they should have to pay for it. They see it as something city government should be providing,” he says. “The reality is, it’s a very fair system: You use it, you pay for it.” Local residents pay about $0.003 per gallon for their water, or, Guerin estimates, approximately $200 annually.

Part of the problem is that people don’t realize what it takes for water to get from a reservoir to their homes, contends Eliadi, citing maintenance and upkeep costs from the treatment plant, the collection of samples for testing, and the repairing of main breaks, for example. “Yes, the end result is that you turn the spigot and you have water, but all the prep time that goes into it should not be taken for granted.”

The industry does not take the work of these alumni for granted. In December 2005, the Massachusetts Water Works Association honored Guerin with its Special Achievement Award, and Eliadi with the Paul F. Howard Award.

Modern demands, antique infrastructure

Dating back to 1848, Worcester’s public water system now includes 500 miles of pipes supplying 200,000 customers. “We have some underground pipes from the 1870s that are still in use,” Guerin notes. In the mid-1980s, the water department converted to an “enterprise” system, and must now finance its operations solely with water bill revenues. “I think the cost of water is becoming a big issue,” he says, “not so much the consumer price, but the towns’ ability to keep their water systems operating.”

Water safety begins at the source, and suburban sprawl can pose threats to Worcester’s remote reservoirs. “You have developers in surrounding towns eyeing the watershed—which they see as empty acreage—and drooling,” says Eliadi. “We have to compete against them, either through conservation restrictions or by buying the land outright. Last year we spent over $2 million to buy huge tracts of land. It’s money well spent for us, because it guarantees nothing’s going to be built, no septic systems are going to be there, and it prolongs the purity of the water. Just because you have a treatment plant doesn’t mean you don’t need some buffer.”

Worcester already had fences and No Trespassing signs in place well before the passage of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, Guerin notes, and new security measures monitor any irregularities. (See page 14 to learn about two alumni involved in a start-up venture to monitor municipal water facilities.)

Eliadi is nostalgic for the good old days, when “you only had to worry about the guy who used to fish in the reservoirs, and kick him out of there.” He harks back to a time when the department used to distribute student handouts with detailed infrastructure maps to schoolchildren who came in looking for help with homework projects. These days, Worcester’s federally mandated vulnerability assessment report is closely guarded. A single copy was hand delivered to the EPA, where it rests in a locked vault.

Another change is a shortage of qualified engineers interested in safeguarding the local water supply. “Some might not see it as a high-profile, exciting way to make a living. But the problem solving we do is critically important to everyone’s health and safety, and to the economy of the city. It touches every aspect of everyone’s life,” Guerin says. “The interesting—and difficult—part is, you can’t be in the pipes to see what’s going on. You’ve got to collect samples and data to understand what’s happening. Once you’re in the field, you can actually see where there’s real application of those equations that you learned at WPI.”

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Last modified: Apr 19, 2006, 22:29 EDT
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