Water is at the heart of the debate over how to fix Providence’s pension problem. And it’s at the heart of the town of Scituate, which is watching closely to see what happens. For almost a century, the town’s identity and finances have been closely tied to the Providence water supply. It’s a town with a lot at stake.
In Providence, it’s easy to turn on the tap without thinking about where the water comes from. But for people in Scituate, it’s hard to forget.
“I’m the 4th generation of my family to be in town. We are very conscious every day of what the reservoir is,” says Alicia Kelley, chairwoman of the Scituate Democrats.
Her family’s connection to Scituate extends to before the reservoir was built in the spot where two branches of the Pawtuxet river come together. At the time, the area was home to orchards, pastures, and seven mill villages.
“So my family worked in the mills here,” Kelley says. “Because the Pawtuxet River ran through Scituate, and that’s how it got flooded, it was the perfect place to put a reservoir.” In the early 20th century, Providence was looking for a place to build a reservoir. The city’s water source at the time - the Pawtuxet River - was polluted by mills upstream. And city leaders wanted a clean and reliable water source for the growing population.
“It all falls under the impetus of the greater good. This obviously being: they need drinking water,” explains archaeologist Kim Smith, who volunteers with the Scituate Preservation Society. “They’re not even talking about drought, they’re talking about they’re just not gonna have water for all the constituents in Providence. One could argue that’s not Scituate’s problem.”
It became Scituate’s problem in 1915, when the General Assembly gave Providence permission to start buying land in the town to build a reservoir. Construction of the large earthen dams offered new job opportunities on a large-scale engineering and construction project. But almost a thousand jobs were lost on farms and mills displaced by the reservoir. And people were angry about a way of life that was lost.
Smith says, “Some of the mill workers themselves weren’t that upset. They didn’t own the land. It was kind of the impetus for them to go to the next best thing. But for the people who were native of Scituate and this was their homeland for the last several hundred years, it deeply affected them.” Some landowners fought back with lawsuits, but they were forced to sell under eminent domain laws. In the end, the Providence Water Supply Board bought three hundred and seventy five homes and relocated family burial grounds. It took an emotional toll on the town, and there are reports of farmers committing suicide after their land was taken.
In Scituate today, the water board owns more than 40% of the land. Driving through the town, you can’t help notice the forested roads are lined with yellow No Trespassing signs, marking the property owned by the Providence Water Supply Board.
As a resident, Smith says, that can be frustrating. “We have thousands of acres bound up as buffer that we’re not allowed to use even for minimal recreation use or trailhead use. So for Scituate it’s a bit of a problem.” Engineers for Providence Water say that forested buffer is their first line of defense for keeping the water clean, and they’re buying more as it becomes available.
It’s an ongoing financial issue for the town. Taxes on Providence Water property make up 20% of the town’s revenue. But that percentage has been falling for decades because property values in the rest of the town went up as people built and renovated homes.
And in the early 2000s, the Providence Water Supply Board sued Scituate over a tax increase. The Board won, and in the settlement deal, Scituate was required to pay 5.3 million dollars back to the city and freeze the Providence Water Supply Board’s tax rate. The Board used that money to buy more than 900 additional acres in the town.
Alicia Kelley says that leaves residents like her with a higher tax bill.
“The city is purchasing land. They’re buying up what they can for land. They’re not paying as much for taxes, which is significant - these are things that are affecting our schools, our infrastructure,” Kelley says.
That tax agreement expires at the end of this year, and the town is gearing up to renegotiate with the Providence Water Supply Board. That’s the most immediate financial worry for Scituate with regard to the water supply. But it’s also keeping a close eye on the pension debate.
In both cases, Scituate stands to lose big. But it doesn’t have much of a voice in the debate.
“We want people to be as proud of our water as we are,” Alicia Kelley says. “But it sometimes can be frustrating that we’ll say ‘Oh we’re from Scituate.’ And it’s ‘Oh you live in the sticks.’ Well actually, no, we host the water you drink. I see my friends in Providence, and I’ll say, ‘You’re drinking my water, you know that right?’”
And that question: who actually owns the water itself? It’s a whole other story.