The Stonington town office on Monday, December 21, 2020. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Town officials in Stonington are calling on seasonal homeowners to keep a sharper eye on their properties after tens of thousands of gallons of water leaked from an unattended home with a burst pipe in February.

There’s an emerging trend of seasonal home owners not shutting off their water in the winter, and largely leaving their properties unwatched, said Town Manager Kathleen Billings. This has resulted in burst pipes and raised concerns about water loss and damage to the island’s water system if they continue to happen.

The island water company noticed town water levels had been depleted last month but it took weeks to pinpoint the leak responsible. Officials had to go from house to house before locating the offending one, which by then had three feet of water in the basement. The owner is a seasonal resident.

“We’ve had a number of these houses that are not being attended to,” Billings said. “We’ll have these places spring a leak and we can lose a ridiculous amount of water.”

Billings wasn’t sure why people were leaving the water on. She theorized that, since Stonington has become a hotspot for short-term rentals, it could be because new owners didn’t know about the bitter cold, high winds and frequent power outages that come with island winters. Or it could be that people want the heat and water on so they can come up on weekends.

Typically, summer residents will have a home winterized – meaning the water is off and pipes are drained – when they are gone in the cold months.

Whatever the reason, Billings wants owners to turn the water off or have an alarm or caretaker looking after the homes.

“This is Maine. It’s winter,” she said. “You cannot leave your place unattended.”

Billings fears that if two or three of these homes had pipes burst at the same time, it could draw so much water that the town’s water system could freeze. It could also force the town to buy water to meet the island’s needs.

“It brings down the whole system,” she said. “It’s a threat to everybody else.”

The town water system supplies water to about 300 customers but has a limited supply. Last summer, the town had to buy and truck in an additional 400,000 gallons to meet the demand amid a drought and influx of tourists.

That makes these recent leaks all the more concerning to officials. The town is now trying to come up with a system to ensure there are fewer unattended homes, said Selectman John Steed. He worried that if one of these large leaks occurred when there was a fire, it could hinder rescue efforts.

“It could be a real problem,” he said. “We want to try to minimize the risk.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled John Steed’s last name.