My gasoline receipts indicate that I was in Pataskala, Ohio, on April 27 when I took the unusual step of buying a copy of USA Today with my morning coffee. I suppose it was being so far from home that prompted me to do it, and I naturally turned to the state-by-state news bits to find that New Hampshire's item came from Conway. The USDA, it said, had just given Conway $12 million to fund a pipeline from Conway village's sewage treatment plant to North Conway's.
Even pipelines that carry useful fluids, like oil or gas or water, can be pretty controversial. Conway, it seems, has only something less desirable to export through such a conduit, yet the announcement of the grant is greeted as though it were the second coming — or going.
I'm afraid I don't share the euphoria of others over this watershed event. Of course it has for decades been the secret dream of local development gremlins to connect the two sewer systems. First of all, it would facilitate far more dense development of the intervening land, and particularly the envisioned village-to-be for which the new high school was constructed as a centerpiece; in fact the proposed connector seems specifically designed to accommodate that plan. It would also complete a major step in forcing the residents of more rural East Conway, Center Conway, and South Conway to help those in Conway and North Conway to pay for the overdevelopment they have allowed and encouraged around their own homes.
The history of our sewer facilities looks murkier, in hindsight, than some seem willing to admit. I was not present at the 1969 town meeting that rejected a townwide sewer — in early March of 1969 I would probably have been crawling the machine-gun gantlet at Fort Polk, or stumbling through the gas chamber — but I do remember a 1980s meeting in which Moderator Fran Deasy explained his mixed feelings about having his name displayed on a dedication plaque at a sewage plant. My thought at the time was that my feelings would not have been mixed at all: they would have been all bad. Sewage plants primarily represent mankind's propensity for overcrowding, and the arrogant assumption that our technology can always compensate for our shortsightedness.
The saga of the North Conway sewer system also illustrated other unpleasant tendencies common to our species. The slick talkers who bamboozled a few dozen North Conway precinct voters into passing a $9 million bond for their first sewer in 1988 promised that it would be funded entirely through user fees, but then they spent the entire $9 million just laying all the pipes without bothering to get a permit for a treatment plant. It ultimately took several times that much money to complete the project, during which the frantic precinct commissioners started buying up land like drunken sailors in the hope of finding one parcel, somewhere, that would fill the environmental specifications. Stupidity may have been the main ingredient in that fiasco, but some of us wondered if an even worse failing was not at play when the three-man precinct commission paid many times the market value for one spot owned by a man whose bank held hefty mortgages against two of them.
All of us in Conway have had to bear the financial burden of most of our neighbors' insatiable appetites for public services. The one consolation for those of us who prefer a little elbow room is that our more gregarious neighbors have at least had to pay for the preponderance of sanitation and water-supply expenses caused by their fondness for living cheek by jowl. One wonders if the USDA grant will actually cover the cost of the project, and with the example of the North Conway system's genesis there would seem to be room for serious doubt about that.
Even if precinct residents, or Conway taxpayers generally, are not gouged for any cost overruns, the benefits to most of them from flushing another $12 million down the toilet will consist primarily of shutting down the few direct-discharge pipes that still empty into the Saco River. It would seem that such pipes could have been shut down through the enforcement of those despised EPA regulations, rather than requiring another massive injection of federal money. The indulgence of human hubris and greed instead seems to require still more public outlay to encourage further overdevelopment, which will only bring greater pollution and, eventually, even worse environmental blight.
William Marvel lives in South Conway.