Remembering the 1980 Amherst drought

@mjmajchrowicz
Published: 8/27/2016 12:31:45 AM

AMHERST — When Jon Hite thinks of the Amherst water crisis of 1980, he also thinks of buses.

It was nearly 36 years ago, on Sept. 4, 1980, when University of Massachusetts Amherst officials decided to shut down campus and send the 11,000 students who lived there home. Temperatures that weekend hovered in the 80s, and the water supply was already significantly lagging due to a summer drought — the worst drought, officials then said, since 1965.

Classes had begun the day before. When students returned to school, the water demand skyrocketed. Then, the normal daily consumption of water ranged from 3.2 and 4.5 million gallons, according to the Amherst Public Works Department at the time.

The result of the surge in demand coupled with the drought: the town’s four water storage tanks went dry, and then Amherst Town Manager A. Louis Hayward declared a water emergency.

Hite, now the retired executive director of the Northampton Housing Authority, was driving to his Amherst home in 1980 when he saw students boarding the fleet of buses wrapped around Haigis Mall.

For as chaotic as the situation was, Hite recalled, “it was handled well. Everyone was cool,” he said. “No harm, no foul.”

Suitcases in hand, students boarded Peter Pan buses and left the campus. Those who did not get on buses lined the roads, trying to hitchhike their way back home, according to Gazette reports.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do. This doesn’t give me a very good impression of the school,” freshman David Rosen told the Gazette then. “I don’t want to pay for a bus to go back home to New Jersey. I guess I’ll try to go to the Grateful Dead concert in Providence.”

While the students were away, the university used that weekend to replenish the water tanks, Hite said. Students returned to campus, and classes resumed by Sept. 8.

Daniel Melley was the UMass director of public affairs at the time of the water crisis. By any account, the incident was both a logistical and public relations nightmare. Now, almost four decades later, Melley, 83, recalls the university’s plan of action with a light chuckle.

“We could’ve handled things in a better way,” he said in an interview Friday. “They sent students home sooner than they needed to.”

So what would he have done differently? Melley said he believes, had town and university officials then been more forward-thinking, rationing the amount of water use — rather than banning consumption outright — would have sufficed.

“We did the best we could,” Melley said. “We’d never run into something like this.”

Michael Majchrowicz can be reached at mmajchrowicz@gazettenet.com.


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