The North Conway Water Precinct Delivers Some of the Best Water on the Planet
By Jason Gagnon
The rich natural beauty of New Hampshire’s White Mountains attracts thousands of visitors every year to the Mt. Washington Valley, many of whom use North Conway as the base camp for their adventures. In many instances, visitors come to enjoy the water they find above ground. In the summer, via a lazy float in a tube while soaking up the warm sun or while fishing from the banks of the Saco or Swift rivers; and in the winter, as they race downhill searching for the perfect stash of untouched snow on the ski slopes, or scale the sheer ice walls found off the beaten paths. After a full day of play, they retire to the hotels and restaurants to clean up, refuel for the next day, and reminisce the day’s adventures over a nightcap with friends—all while dishes are washed, showers are had, and toilets are flushed in the background.
While most of us are keenly aware of the direct role water plays in recreation—a bad snow year, for example, or how drought or major flooding affects the rivers—fewer of us ever think about what’s going on with the water under the ground and in the pipes, or how that water supports nearly every aspect of our daily lives. This is where the North Conway Water Precinct comes in.
In most communities across New England, public water and wastewater services are provided by the towns or cities. The Mt. Washington Valley is somewhat unique, in that public drinking water is not provided by the towns themselves, but rather by municipal corporations called village districts and precincts. These entities are legally recognized political sub-governments of the State of New Hampshire—similar to towns in many ways, but with a more narrowly defined scope of operation focused on public drinking water, wastewater, and fire and rescue services. As you explore the Valley, your travels may take you through no less than nine (including fire districts) of these entities, each within an 8-mile radius of North Conway Village.
Each of these precincts and village districts arose from a simple need: as individual villages within the Valley grew, the density of development could no longer be supported by individual water wells. Whether to support a rail depot or industrial use, or to provide fire protection for tightly packed downtown buildings, each of the villages recognized the value of a reliable, on-demand source of water.
From a practical standpoint, a single town-wide system was not feasible. Today’s expansive water systems exist mostly thanks to high-powered pumps that push water over great distances to storage tanks that provide adequate pressure to all users. In the mid-to-late-1800s, when most of these systems were first being imagined, available technology involved moving water from a reservoir at a higher elevation by gravity down to the village below—making proximity to the source of your water much more important—and so the many separate water systems throughout the Valley were born.
Although evidence has been found of wooden pipes in use earlier on specific properties, the first documented attempt at a larger scale water system in North Conway came in 1877 with the incorporation of the North Conway Aqueduct and Water Company. In 1883, the water system was built under the direction of Nathan Whitaker, Lycurgus Pitman, and W. M. Pitman. The system collected water from a reservoir built along Artist Brook (near the end of what is now Thompson Road) with 3.5 miles of cast iron pipe ranging in size from 10 inches to 3 inches in diameter and including six fire hydrants, eight gate valves, and 40 service connections—at a reported cost of $10,000. In 1891, the waterworks was reorganized as the North Conway Water and Improvement Company, this time with the additional purposes of providing sewer and fire protection services. By 1897, the system had expanded to 11 miles of water main, 200 service connections, and 35 fire hydrants, with a total investment of $20,000.
After a brief holding period in the waste-activate sludge (WAS) holding tank, WAS is pumped to the dewatering building where it is mixed with a polymer to encourage water release. At this point, the WAS contains about just one percent solids—still almost entirely water. WAS is made up primarily of microorganisms, and the polymer helps break down water surface tension so that the microorganisms will more easily release the water they’re holding on to in the dewatering process. The WAS/polymer mixture then flows into three Huber inclined screw presses where, in a nutshell, most of the water is squeezed out. The water returns to the headworks of the WWTF to be treated again, while the dewatered solids are conveyed into dumpsters for disposal at a secure landfill.
The North Conway Water Precinct (NCWP) was created by an act of the New Hampshire legislature on February 14, 1905, for the purpose of purchasing the privately held North Conway Water and Improvement Company by the citizens of North Conway. In the following decades, the citizens of NCWP continued to invest in their public water system to meet the growing demand for clean, reliable water service, including the addition of another reservoir off Hurricane Mountain Road. Eventually, groundwater wells were drilled to replace the surface water reservoirs, further improving the reliability and quality of supply. Large storage tanks were also added to the system to provide reliable water pressure and storage for firefighting.
Today, NCWP operates five gravel-packed wells within the deep, clean sand and gravel aquifer of the Saco River Valley. This aquifer is fed by the melting snow of the White Mountains and provides some of the cleanest, best-tasting drinking water in the world. Water department staff take great pride in their work to maintain our water system. The purity of our source and continued investment in a modern, well-maintained distribution (piping) system has allowed NCWP to be the largest non-disinfecting water system in New Hampshire.
Our water treatment process is simple: pump the water from deep within the aquifer, adjust the pH slightly to help protect our piping, and fill the tanks so that customers have a safe, reliable supply of water at their disposal. No chlorine or other disinfectants are added to our water supply. When you get a glass of water from the tap in North Conway, you are drinking water from the same source as the fancy store-bought spring water—the major differences being that NCWP water costs customers $0.003 per gallon (more than 1,000 times less expensive than the store-bought stuff) and doesn’t come with the potential environmental and health impacts of a single-use plastic bottle.
Our water system provides more than just incredibly high-quality drinking water. Our four million gallons of water storage also ensure reliable water pressure and fire protection to support and protect economic activity within North Conway and beyond. Water from NCWP is purchased by Pennichuck Corporation for the Birch Hill residential water system off West Side Road, and an interconnection with Conway Village Fire District provides the water supply and fire pressures needed to support continued development in the northern end of their system. At the height of tourism season, NCWP’s water, wastewater, and fire and rescue departments support an estimated 30,000 users over a single weekend—roughly equivalent to the entire population of cities like Dover or Rochester.
NCWP is constantly looking to invest wisely in infrastructure that creates long-term savings for customers and taxpayers. In 2011, NCWP was one of the first municipalities in New Hampshire to install a solar array and geothermal HVAC at our WWTF. In 2020, faced with the cost of a much-needed new fire station, NCWP invested in expansion of the solar array. The estimated $130K+ electricity savings from the array will be used to offset the cost of the fire station over the next 20 years and continue to return those savings over the full 40-year life of the solar panels.
This intense tourism activity brings with it an increased risk to the natural resources of the Valley. NCWP recognizes that the foundation of life in the Mt. Washington Valley is the rich natural environment that surrounds us.
The ecological services it provides are often the primary reasons people chose to live and vacation here, and the mountains and rivers and the recreational opportunities they provide are the basis for our local economy. Because of the strong connection between our natural environment and our way of life, NCWP takes very seriously its role as a steward of Mt. Washington Valley water resources.
In the 1980s, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) presented the findings of a study showing NCWP’s drinking water wells were at risk of contamination from the growing impacts of development and intense tourism activity. Over more than a decade, NCWP worked to develop plans and build support for a public wastewater system with the capacity to protect drinking water resources throughout the Mt. Washington Valley. The Wastewater Treatment Facility (WWTF) opened in 1997, and since that time, NCWP has continued investing in expanding the sewer collection system throughout North Conway—and in 2016, began receiving all wastewater flow from Conway Village Fire District as well. Additional treatment capacity still remains to accept future wastewater flows from other Valley communities.
The treatment process at the WWTF involves careful monitoring and control of the natural biological process by NCWP’s skilled operators. Operators combine knowledge of microbiology, water chemistry, and fluid processes with hands-on industrial mechanic skills to regulate mixing, aeration, and solids removal, as needed, to meet the demands of influent sewerage that is constantly changing in response to seasonal tourism activity. Varying levels of dissolved oxygen are used in each section of our treatment process to create a unique metabolic environment in which different naturally occurring microorganisms remove specific components of pollution found in wastewater. After the microorganisms “eat” the pollution in the wastewater, they then fall to the bottom of one of the final treatment tanks where some will be recycled to the beginning of the treatment process, while others will be removed, dewatered, and disposed of at the Conway landfill.
In addition to NCWP, other local municipal water providers include Conway Village Fire District, Lower Bartlett Water Precinct, Bartlett Village Water Precinct, Jackson Water Precinct, and the Village District of Eidelweiss.
Although water distribution technology has improved through the years to hypothetically allow consolidation of these various public water suppliers, the individual precincts and districts continue to thrive independently. Here in New Hampshire, these entities embody the spirit of local control as the citizens of each precinct or district invest locally to support and enrich their communities through robust public infrastructure. In many cities and towns, the type of progress achieved by precincts and districts might not be possible due to competing funding priorities and large numbers of voters not served directly by the water and sewer systems.
The North Conway Wastewater Treatment Facility is a state-of-the-art, five-stage Bardenpho process providing advanced biological nutrient removal and capable of effectively treating 2.25 million gallons per day (MGD) before returning cleaned effluent back to the groundwater within the Saco River aquifer. Wastewater treatment is both an art and a science. Operators use their knowledge of microbiology, chemistry, and physics to analyze and optimize WWTF performance—but at the end of the day, any operator will tell you that working with the hundreds (if not thousands) of possible adjustments within the WWTF to optimize treatment is an art that is developed over many years of observation and experience. Click on the image to get additional information from the NCWT website
It is important to understand, however, that precincts, districts, and towns are most successful when they work together in the best interest of the larger community. In North Conway, for example, the water, wastewater, and fire infrastructure built and maintained by NCWP is vitally important to the development of the commercial tax base that promotes lower tax rates for residents. Likewise, proactive planning and zoning at the town level is vitally important to focus development in areas that pose less contamination threat to the drinking water supply. NCWP and the Town of Conway have historically worked well together to leverage the strengths of each organization for the benefit of the community. Examples of this include coordination of town road projects with NCWP water and sewer projects, and treatment of the town’s landfill leachate in exchange for disposal of WWTF sludge, which alone saves the taxpayers of Conway nearly half a million dollars each year. As development pressure continues to grow in the Valley, the importance of collaboration between the towns, precincts, and districts to protect our natural resources cannot be understated.
NCWP has also prioritized partnership with state and federal funding agencies, such as NH Department of Environmental Services, USDA Rural Development, and U.S. Economic Development Administration. These partnerships leverage NCWP’s local commitment, opening a pipeline that brings outside funding into our local economy and allows a relatively small precinct with less than 5,000 residents to build systems capable of supporting the regional economic engine in an affordable manner.
Most tubers and paddlers around this unique part of the Saco River have no idea they’re floating right past a wastewater treatment plant, responsible for cleaning a million gallons of sewerage every day. And that is just the way plant management prefers it. The Wastewater Treatment Facility (WWTF) opened in 1997, and since that time, NCWP has continued investing in expanding the sewer collection system throughout North Conway—and in 2016, began receiving all wastewater flow from Conway Village Fire District as well.
Perhaps you had never heard of NCWP before. You might never have realized that part of the reason the coffee and beer tastes so good in town is that it started with some of the best water on the planet. You also might not realize you’re floating past a wastewater plant cleaning a million gallons of sewerage every day when you pass by on the Saco on a hot July day. That’s okay. We know we’re doing our job well when the water doesn’t raise eyebrows for the wrong reasons.
But the next time you find yourself skiing Tuckerman Ravine in the spring, you might reflect for a minute about how the snow you’re skimming over will eventually melt and become North Conway’s drinking water. If you can choose between actions that threaten our groundwater, or a little extra effort to do your part to keep it clean, I hope you think about how much better your beverage of choice tastes here, or the nearly $100 million NCWP has invested over the years to protect our Valley’s natural resources—and decide to do your part to help keep our water clean.
North Conway Water Precinct will continue to do our part to ensure that clean water is a touchstone of the
Mt. Washington Valley.
Catch this article in the Summer 2021 print edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe!