Selectmen reject Nestlé, but want Wekepeke options open
By Michael Ballway
Wed Apr 16, 2008, 04:37 PM EDT
Clinton - Wekepeke water may be good enough to bottle, but selectmen last week worried tapping the backup reservoir would uncork an expensive legal battle.
“I probably don’t think the risk-reward tradeoff is there, due to possible litigation and the amount of money to be had in the deal,” said Selectman Joseph Notaro Jr.
Notaro referred to grassroots opposition to the deal in Sterling, where the reservoirs are located on 560 acres of land owned by Clinton, and recent correspondence from Sterling attorney James Gettens, who said he would mount a legal campaign to have commercial use of groundwater in his town deemed illegal.
Clinton selectmen, some of whom had adamantly defended the board’s decision to pursue a deal with Nestlé Waters North America, unanimously agreed to end discussions with the Swiss foodmaker at their April 9 meeting. Selectmen also voted to ask the town solicitor to investigate Clinton’s rights to the Wekepeke land, surface water and ground water.
Selectman Kevin Haley made the motion to end discussions with Nestlé, but said he didn’t want to stop discussing Wekepeke.
“I’d rather look at different options for the Wekepeke and fixing the dams,” Haley said. “I’d like to see, also, what are our rights to selling the land?”
Clinton acquired the Wekepeke lands in the 1880s, to use as a water supply for the town. State legislation authorized the town to dam spring-fed Wekepeke Brook and pipe the reservoir water through Sterling to Clinton. Following construction of the Wachusett Reservoir, Clinton stopped using Wekepeke water for its municipal supply. Some believe the pipes from Wekepeke were broken when Interstate 190 was built.
Nestlé approached Clinton last year, offering to pump water from the aquifer beneath Wekepeke in exchange for a payment to the town. When Nestlé’s bid was opened last month, however, selectmen were surprised at how low the payment was — about $300,000 per year.
In February 2007, Public Works Superintendent Christopher McGown had estimated it would cost more than $1 million to make state-mandated repairs to the dams at Wekepeke. He said at the time that Clinton might face a property tax or water rate hike if it could not find some other funding source.
Selectman Anthony Fiorentino reminded his colleagues last week of the need to repair the dams.
“We looked into the Wekepeke deal because of the condition of the dams,” Fiorentino said. “The solution we have on the table is somewhat overengineered for that problem.”
When news of Nestlé’s interest was publicized, many of Wekepeke’s neighbors in northern Sterling organized a citizen group to oppose the deal, fearing commercial pumping would hurt wildlife and private wells, in addition to bringing truck traffic to town. Opponents said Clinton and its potential tenants have no right to groundwater, only surface water — the reservoirs held back by the Wekepeke dams.
Selectmen last week said they would seek to clarify that point.
“I believe Clinton has the right to use the land and resources it has in Sterling,” said Notaro. “These are questions that obviously need to be answered. I want to know exactly what can be done with that land.”
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Sterling to meet on Wekepeke controversy
By Jean Laquidara Hill TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
STERLING— Selectmen are expecting many questions and are preparing answers for tonight’s forum on the use of Wekepeke water.
The forum will be held at 7 p.m. at Chocksett Middle School.
Whether the town of Clinton has the right to sell the water to Nestlé Waters, or to any other private company, is the crux of the matter.
Clinton, which owns Wekepeke reservoirs in Sterling and hundreds of acres around the reservoirs, has issued a request-for-proposals to sell water from the reservoirs to a private, for-profit company.
A legislative act in the late 1800s allowed the acreage and reservoirs to be transferred to Clinton as a water supply for its residents. The Wachusett Reservoir later replaced the Wekepeke as a public water source for Clinton, which has not used the Wekepeke for decades.
Nestlé Waters, a water-bottling operation, has indicated it will submit a proposal to buy Wekepeke water from Clinton and has conducted tests confirming the reservoirs would provide adequate water.
Sterling selectmen have asked Clinton selectmen to meet and discuss the concept, but Clinton selectmen have not agreed to meet yet. They have indicated they would meet with Sterling selectmen after the board receives requests-for-proposals, according to Sterling Selectman Richard A. Sheppard.
Mr. Sheppard said yesterday that the Committee for Informed Citizens, which opposes the selling of Sterling water, has submitted questions about the selectmen’s position and the legality of the proposal.
He said the questions were referred to special counsel Mark Bobrowski of Concord, who specializes in land use issues and will be at the meeting.