Wannacomet Water Company
by Sarah Teach
Wherever you are on Nantucket, you know you can quickly reach water.
And that’s one reason we all love Nantucket. We swim in it; we sail through it; we breathe in its salty scent, thick with the promise of life. But we cannot drink the seawater that surrounds us. (That is, unless we covet a slow death by dehydration!) And with 30 miles of that seawater between our tiny stretch of sand and the rest of the world, we don’t have the “next town over” resources upon which other locations can rely. We are on our own to find clean water. The charming landmark water pump in Sconset might lead visitors to believe that the town gets its water from old-world artisan wells. Robert Gardner, General Manager of Nantucket’s Wannacomet Water Company, chuckles and dispels the notion: “That’s a rumor. There’s not an artisan well on this island.” So where does Nantucket’s fresh water come from?
Gardner begins with a quick history lesson: “The island was created 10,000 years ago by the last of the glaciations.” Plunging hundreds of feet below sea level is our aquifer, a bowl-shaped store of fresh water that is captured beneath the island in the sand, which serves as an excellent natural filter. The lens, or the water within the dense clay walls of the “bowl,” is replenished by rainfall. “It’s a pretty complex geological system,” says Gardner. The Wannacomet Water Company serves the water needs of the entire island, including Siasconset through contracting. The west end of the island, Madaket, requires more specialized care as the “bowl” is more shallow in that region. “There are two schools of thought about Madaket’s water,” explains Gardner. “Some say that part of the island has an entirely separate lens of water; others think it’s connected with the rest of the island’s lens.” But regardless of which school your opinion attends, one thing is clear: Nantucket’s water is wonderfully fresh and clean. “We have amazing water quality. We do nothing to it,” says Gardner, grinning with pride before growing a bit more serious. “But that’s a two-edged sword. If something happens to the water, we’re screwed.” When a water company does not chlorinate its water, it becomes a challenge to keep various chemical levels where they need to be for public safety. But Nantucket’s water company takes pride in ensuring that those levels stay where they should be. “We put a lot of effort into creating and mailing out our annual report,” says Gardner with a smile.
Indeed, Wannacomet Water Company has put our island in the hands of sound leadership. Gardner has spent the past 30 years in the business of bringing the freshest water possible to communities. Although he ended up in a career with vast societal value, his path to it was simple: “I needed a job,” Gardner says frankly. “I had graduated college in 1970. I did some active duty years with the National Guard, and after that, I wanted to be a schoolteacher. But in 1972, in Springfield, Vermont, there were no teaching jobs.” He shrugs and continues.
“Someone told me that the town needed people to read water meters. I said, ‘I can do that,’ and I really liked the business once I got into it. You felt like you were actually doing something to help people.” A few years passed before Gardner moved to Burlington, VT to manage the city’s water district. Through professional connections, Gardner got to know islander David Worth, Wannacomet’s then-general manager. Gardner says, “I always joked with [Worth] and said, ‘When you retire, you give me a call.’ Well, he did. I came out, interviewed, and got the job.” In 1995, Gardner and his wife moved to Nantucket full time. In lieu of having fulfilled his young adulthood dream of being a history teacher, Gardner will gladly offer a history lesson to anyone who is interested in learning about Nantucket’s water.
A piece of history that Gardner loves to share is the beginning of the Wannacomet Water Company. From about 1880 to 1902, it was called the Wannacomet Water and Ice Company, and the company served the island’s needs beyond providing clean water. “They did anything to make a buck,” says Gardner. “They even grew potatoes!” At this, Gardner laughs and adds, “I suspect they had the property [to grow potatoes], and the town had a need for potatoes.” He raises his hands, laughing a bit more at the concept. In recognition of the island’s interesting water history, the Nantucket Water Commission aims to have an interpretive historic walking path in place around Washing Pond by this time next year. They are looking to restore the surrounding area back to grasslands, ridding it of the poison ivy and scrub oak that has invaded. This coming October, local historian and author Dr. Frances Karttunen will publish Moses Tapped the Washing Pond: A History of Wannacomet Water Company, a brand new book packed with colorful stories and images of the people who have shaped Nantucket’s water business through the years.
In our modern day, you do not need to dig too deeply to find that there are a number of environmentalists on Nantucket who scoff at the endless field of bright green lawns, citing waste of our resource. Gardner, however, counters that viewpoint: “I have absolutely no problem with lawn watering. Being able to have a green lawn is a big part of Nantucket’s economy; people come out here because they can have that. On a given summer day, upwards of 50% of all water usage is going towards irrigation. And it employs landscapers, irrigation specialists, and [through lawn watering] they’re putting water right back into the aquifer. We’re in a unique situation where we don’t have to worry about quantity.” Instead, Gardner says that the biggest threat facing Nantucket’s water supply today is ignorance. “If people just assume that the water is there forever and nothing can harm it, that’s the problem,” he says. Everyone who visits Nantucket can help the cause by being mindful of dumping chemicals of any kind into the soil in any part of the island. Residents in particular can make a difference by ensuring that their property’s storm water runoff and fertilizer use is being executed properly and with regard to Nantucket’s ecosystem.
Wannacomet makes efforts to inform the public about the need for action-based support. During our recent Race Week festivities, Wannacomet handed out water bottles bearing their slogan, Only Tap Water Delivers. Gardner explains the slogan’s meaning: “We deliver water quality; we deliver water to maintain fire protection; we deliver water to the hospital for public health. Clean water is important.” Gardner raises his eyebrows and reveals a sobering reality: “No water, no beer.”
Next time you turn a Nantucket faucet, or pour yourself a glass of sparklingly clean water, take an outdoor shower after a day at the beach, or crack open a local brew, take a moment to relish the luxuriously pure water that we have here on Nantucket. With everyone’s attentiveness to not harming our precious resource, Nantucket can remain a place with a water source worth celebrating.