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The young man and the sea

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Think of the Mill Pond Reservoir as a huge cauldron of chicken soup. There are no directions and there’s no list of ingredients, but if you get it wrong, your dinner guests will taste it right away — and they will complain. This story is about the chef who stirred that pot on day one and continued for 40 years.

In 1972, fast-growing Burlington was running out of water, at least good water. Industrial pollution was ruining some of the town’s drinking wells near the three WRKO towers behind Bradlees (Kohl’s). Luckily, the town had just acquired the Mill Pond area from the Cummings estate and was spending $4.5 million to make that little pond into a much bigger man-made reservoir. And it had successfully petitioned the state legislature for rights to tap the Shawsheen River in Billerica, just before the state turned against any such “inter-basin transfer of water.”

Shawsheen Valley Technical High School aerial
Here’s the pumping station near Shawsheen Tech that sends water all the way to Burlington’s reservoir. If we proposed this now, fuggedaboudit.

Here’s the reservoir taking shape:

Mill Pond Reservoir construction c. 1971
Mill Pond Reservoir construction c. 1971. Photo credit: Elaine Bertwell of Wilmington, who used to swim in the old Mill Pond before it became a big man-made lake. The dry areas were used to smash old cars in untelevised demolition derbies.

So the reservoir was a masterstroke of foresight and a shrewd legal maneuver. But the town needed the right person to make this new water operation work. The reservoir, the brand new water treatment plant, the existing town wells — someone had to make Burlington water work.

Bill Keene from Corcoran Road used to jog around the old Mill Pond quite a bit, when the bed was still checkered with old foundations from so-called “ice houses.” Laborers would cut ice from the frozen pond every winter and store them in those little houses. Area homeowners would buy ice for their home “ice boxes,” before today’s kitchen appliances existed.

William Keene BHS
BHS Class of 1966

And Bill was one of the young guys who would buzz up and down Winter Street/Chestnut Avenue, the twisty road that wrapped around the north side of the pond through Woburn and Wilmington. He had lost a good friend on that road when his pickup tipped over and crushed him as he fell out the window. And Bill was very familiar with a huge oak tree standing guard on a sharp turn. A car door was permanently lodged in the trunk of that tree. Police had taken away the rest of the car but left the door where it was, as a warning about reckless driving.

Now the tree was gone. Heavy construction equipment was clearing that very spot for a new water treatment plant. And the town had hired Bill to run it. His credentials? Well, he had just received a biology/chemistry degree from Nasson College in Springvale, Maine, and he was working for Arthur D. Little as a cancer researcher.

He had also taught at Francis Wyman Middle School — very briefly. The students drove him nuts. But not just him. One of his colleagues who had been honorably discharged from the Marines actually volunteered to head into combat in Vietnam rather than stay at Francis Wyman Middle School.

Nowadays, running a town water supply means relying on computers quite a bit. But this was before computers. Human intuition, skill and experience were on call. Bill was a rookie. And worse, this was the early 70s, when people were starting to go “green.” They were throwing around a new favorite word, “ecology.” They were starting to obsess about pollution. And drinking water.

See the pressure situation here? An unproven Burlington boy in his mid 20s was about to saddle up and take the reins to a brand new water supply serving a population that was sure to have some very vocal Nervous Nellies.

Ready, set, go!

Right out of the gate, a problem. The reservoir “leaked.” When it started filling for the first time in 1973, some nearby houses also started filling. Concetta Down at 49 Winter Street in Woburn and neighbor Chelsey Lund, 36 Winter Street, became the voices of protest for the neighborhood. Lund said his basement was so wet, he had mushrooms growing out of his wall paneling. Whitman & Howard, the engineering firm behind the reservoir project, suggested the ground water table was simply super-high because of recent rains. Lund wasn’t buying it. He told the press that just a year prior, he had buried a horse on his property in a 10-foot hole, using excavating equipment, but never encountered a drop of water.

Joseph Mantini at 414 Chestnut Ave. in Wilmington told Wilmington selectmen that his yard had become a marsh, useless for his six children but very hospitable to bugs. Ed Rooney at 483 Chestnut Ave. said he was losing money because he couldn’t use his barn or rent his horses.

Wilmington and Woburn threatened to sue Burlington for damage to infrastructure. The soggy ground and the constant flow of water from basement pumps were undermining roads, they said. Tense meetings commenced. Faced with possible litigation, Burlington selectmen had to zip their lips and behave coldly. Any display of empathy could become Exhibit A:

“You issued a sincere apology to Wilmington, true? That’s an admission of responsibility, true?”

Those town-against-town lawsuits never happened. But Lund did sue Burlington and won about $23,000, the equivalent of $133,000 today. Burlington installed a water lift station to resolve the slosh near the Lund house on Winter Street. On Chestnut Street, the town installed a perforated pipe to collect and divert water. But some area residents are still feeling reservoir repercussions. Cheryl Rooney Varey still says the pipe just replaced one problem with another. “Nobody checks on it, so we have to check it. It gets clogged a lot from tree roots. On March 22, 2001, we had a flooded yard and a flooded finished basement because that drainpipe was clogged — nothing covered by insurance!”

The new Mill Pond Reservoir, Burlington MA
The new Mill Pond Reservoir, Burlington MA. Photo credit: Burlington archives, Dan McCormack.

Keene maintains the reservoir never actually leaked at all. Rather, the water-tight reservoir basin forced local streams to re-route. “The reservoir dams have concrete walls which seal them to be bedrock below. When we sealed them, the streams that normally flowed into the old pond could not, so they built up around the perimeter and raised the ground water level in the area.”

With peace restored in the neighborhood, the next challenge was water quality. Making water safe to drink is hard enough. Making it desirable is even harder. It’s supposed to be odorless, colorless and tasteless, but the reservoir’s big debut in the summer of ’73 produced yellow tap water that smelled like rotten eggs.

Why? Two reasons. First, the town’s pipes were accustomed to well water flowing at a certain speed, and at a certain temperature range, and from the southwest end of town. Iron and manganese had built up in the pipes and routinely entered Burlington’s tap water in tiny amounts that didn’t bother anyone. But the reservoir introduced a faster rush of water from the exact opposite direction, the northeast end of town, and with wildly fluctuating temperatures. This kicked up lots of minerals from those old pipes.

The other reason was a rookie mistake by Keene. He had drawn water from too low in the reservoir, putting too much sediment into the system. If you leave chicken soup alone, it develops a surface skin, and a clear middle stratum, and then a lower stratum containing most of the solids. In other words, it “settles” pretty fast. The new reservoir had already settled, so Keene was drawing carrots and potatoes into the system. “I didn’t expect the water to stratify so quickly,” he says with 47 years of hindsight. “I didn’t know the lake yet. Every lake has a personality.”

The Mill Pond Reservoir "catwalk" Burlington MA
This photo could never be taken again, unless you drain the reservoir. That platform controls how water moves from the reservoir to the treatment facility. Workers stand on top and open or close the little holes to allow water into a main exit pipe. There are three holes. One is camouflaged at the bottom of the image, among the rocks. Why have three separate exit heights for the water? Because depending on what’s going on in the water (algae treatment, for example) deeper might be better. Sometimes shallower is better. The second hole down the platform has become the most used.
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The platform today.

Reservoir catwalk Burlington MA

Keene was a straightforward young man. He took a deep breath and told Burlington that the discolored water was safe but could cause diarrhea. That didn’t exactly calm the waters. Burlington’s Board of Health was deluged with complaints. Selectman Michael Wyslotski commiserated. “The proof of the pudding lies in the water coming from homeowners’ faucets, and it’s not very good.”

The summer of ’74 was no better. This time the undesirable water was blamed on a town-wide hydrant flushing operation, which required chlorine treatment and caused the odd taste. Plus, the chlorine had freed up even more old sediment from the pipes.

Keene needed to tame this beast, and he did.

First, he convinced the town to pay for an aeration system. This pumps air through tubes into the bottom of the reservoir, which agitates the cauldron and prevents the soup from settling. Second, he shut down an old pumping station off Meadow Road, and shut down a couple of old town wells between Sandy Brook Road and the WRKO towers. They had been polluted by industry on the Turnpike. Third, he started to manage pH in the water. And finally, in the early 80s, computers came to the rescue. He now had software for chemical and hydraulics analyses.

With flooding under control, and water quality under control, the third and final challenge was controlling public interaction with the reservoir. Should it be fenced off? Mary Morgan of Burlington thought so. She convinced Town Meeting to pay for a 2600-foot chainlink fence around some of the lake.

Should the reservoir have recreation, like boating? If so, should the town solicit state funding to pay for a parking area and docks? Selectmen debated that topic in 1975. Thomas J. Murphy worried that taking state money would mean drawing state-wide attention and attracting people from everywhere. “If we’re going to create a recreation area there for fishing and boating, it should be with our own funds and for our own residents.” If not boating, what about at least fishing from the shore? Why not stock the lake with fish? Keene gave that idea the thumbs up and annually stocked the reservoir with trout and largemouth bass trucked in from the Harold Parker State Forest in Andover. Those species not only tolerate the algae-killing chemicals in the water, they actually eat some of the algae.

Reservoir fishing is good to this day. But fishing is as close as you can get to touching the water. The town decided to keep the public on the shore, nice and dry. You can hike and bike near the reservoir, but you must leave the water alone. Youngsters try to break that rule, of course. They’ve perpetually set up rope swings from the reservoir’s island/peninsula, but Keene and staff have perpetually cut them down.

Separating the public from public water is for the best, says Keene, because the relationship tends to bring out the worst in people. For example, the town well in the woods off Terrace Hall Avenue, across from the Francis Wyman School, once had an outside faucet available to the public, until Keene discovered some hanky-panky. One morning, a Poland Spring delivery truck was parked at the faucet. The driver was startled to see Keene suddenly standing before him, but at least he was honest. He admitted he had run out of water for his customers. Then Belmont Spring did the same. Yes, spring water customers were sometimes getting water from, uh, Burlington Springs. And then a coffee truck operator went down there to fill his water tanks — and wash the dirt and salt off his truck, directly on top of the town’s water supply.

Keene removed that public faucet.

Keeping the public separated from public water has another big benefit. Nobody has drowned in the Mill Pond Reservoir.* Nobody except a Budweiser delivery van. Someone stole one and dumped it into the water in 1976. It might have affected Burlington’s tap water, but nobody complained.

Bill Keene went on to earn a masters in Civil Engineering/Environmental Health Engineering at Tufts University. He became chairman of the state’s water flouridation body, and helped the state develop licensing standards for water plant operators. Bill pioneered some filtration techniques that caught the attention of other water operations all the way to Europe.

Reservoir fishing in the fog, Burlington MA. Photo credit: Robert Fahey
Fishing in the fog at the Reservoir. Photo credit: Robert Fahey

 

*Nobody has drowned in the Mill Pond Reservoir, but people did drown in the original Mill Pond in 1948. Special thanks to Larz Neilson, former editor of the Town Crier in Wilmington. These are from the Boston Globe:

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4 thoughts on “The young man and the sea Leave a comment

  1. What happened to the submerged Budweiser delivery van?! Fascinating article. Is there an article about the rumours about Sawmill Road? The haunted Triangle house?

  2. I had a job working for Bill for three summers. I mowed grass, etc. but also did more interesting jobs like finding the ground water levels in pipes around the reservoir and down by the neighborhood. I would also drive the patrol boat around the lake with burlap bags full of copper sulfate chips. We dragged the bags through the water until they dissolved. Then, we moved to another spot until we covered the entire lake. It was a great summer job for a high school/college kid. Bill is a helluva guy and was a great boss.

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