Energy & Environment

Vermont’s rural fire districts hope federal cash will stabilize ailing water systems

Gina Campoli, left, and Barb Strong, commissioners for Craftsbury Fire District #2, check the municipal water system’s chlorine level at the district’s pump house on Sunday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

CRAFTSBURY — The lone water system in this rural Northeast Kingdom community is hanging by a thread.

Many people in Craftsbury — a town made up of a cluster of villages with a total population of 1,136 — aren’t connected to any water system. They draw drinking water from wells outside their homes and process sewage through individual septic tanks.

The single drinking water system in the town is located on Craftsbury Common, one of the villages, and serves about 40 families, plus Sterling College and Craftsbury Academy, according to Polly Allen. Allen is secretary of Craftsbury Fire District #2, a volunteer body that manages the local water system.

After “cruising” for the past decade, the system’s water is fast approaching Vermont’s state-mandated maximum PFAS levels and is separated “by a hair,” Allen said. A no-drink order resulting from excessively high PFA levels would be devastating for the schools and the community, Allen said. That recently led the fire district to begin a search for a new well for the system. 

As Vermont waits for a windfall of federal Covid-19 relief, Allen wonders if the funds hold an opportunity to address the water system’s shortcomings. She also worries that a cordoning off of administrative functions in the town, where the fire district works separately from the selectboard, could make it challenging to deliver the once-in-a-lifetime money to the water system.

“I think a lot of people in Craftsbury don’t even know we exist,” Allen said of the board she serves on. “When the town governance is thinking about how to spend money,  we’re all a little bit siloed.”

While discussions crystallize in Vermont about how to spend the influx of federal money, advocates for clean water access are trying to direct the money to underfunded rural water systems that need it most. 

At the same time, they’re confronting a persistent challenge with the way fire districts are set up: Some worry that the districts’ separation from selectboards and other units of local government will pose challenges to delivering the federal cash.

For rural water access, a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity

Of the $2.7 billion headed to Vermont from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act, some $200 million — roughly $300 per resident — will be doled out to towns and municipalities around the state. 

The funds could be lifesaving for small rural water systems, whose operators tend to pride themselves on being thrifty, said Liz Royer, director of the Vermont Rural Water Association.

“They’re trying to save money for their systems and for their towns, and they may not have the funds to be proactive about maintenance and improvement,” Royer said. “So this is kind of their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fund those projects and improvements that have been needed.”

According to Allen, fire districts are part of a Vermont tradition of volunteerism. 

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation defines a fire district as a “municipal corporation” whose purpose is to “manage certain functions of town government that either are not available throughout the entire town, or are better administered by a distinct, special-purpose entity.”

Liz Royer, executive director of the Vermont Rural Water Association, seen at a municipal sewer system pump house in Williston on Sunday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Some 70 fire districts exist around Vermont, according to Royer. Many of those are dedicated to managing small, rural towns’ water systems. Some of those systems have water lines dating back to the 1800s, when Vermont towns first established drinking water utilities — meaning there are some towns that still rely on wooden water mains, Royer said.

Cities like Burlington, in contrast, have city-coordinated waste and drinking water systems that service thousands of residents.

Smaller water systems’ customer revenue has dropped as Covid-19 battered Vermont’s economy over the past year. A legislative effort to help Vermonters pay their bills during the recession omitted water systems from eligible programs, even as unpaid water bills stacked up. Royer believes that was partly because of a lack of understanding around how fire systems work.

“That’s translated to the smaller utilities just not having the money they need to do repairs and keep up with the maintenance like they typically would,” Royer said.

Water infrastructure projects fall within one of four preliminary categories the U.S. Treasury Department released describing how towns may spend their federal allotments. Detailed directions from the agency about how towns should spend their parcels are forthcoming.

Once they receive the funds, towns will likely be free to shuffle money between entities that manage public works — such as a selectboard and a fire district.

“We certainly fully expect that towns would have the capability of working with another nonprofit or unit of government to help do a project,” said Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, which has been working with towns on plans for how to spend the relief money. 

The infrastructure at the Craftsbury Fire District #2’s pump house dates from the 1980s. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Craftsbury Selectboard member Susan Houston told VTDigger that the board would consider a proposal to direct funds to Fire District #2 to aid in revitalizing its water system. But the body is waiting to make any decisions about how to spend the money. 

“We know we have time to be thoughtful about this,” Houston said.

That aligns with the track Brady hopes towns will take. The league is encouraging them to wait until the federal guidance is released before jumping to decisions about which projects to plan for, he said. And because the money promises to be significant but not quite a windfall for most towns, they should seek alternate funding sources to complement their relief amounts, he said.

There may be state dollars in store for some water-related projects. Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, told VTDigger last month that her agency would support matching state dollars to federal funds planned for stormwater and sewage system investments in towns.

Planning rural water access for the 21st century

While many towns may be thinking about the federal money as a way to start major water infrastructure projects or finish existing ones, Royer believes that advancing public health through water access in rural areas often means fixing systems that already exist.

She hopes town planners will keep those kinds of projects in mind in thinking about how to spend their allotments.

“Things like replacing distribution and collection systems, or replacing 100-year-old wooden pipes, are the kinds of projects that are out of sight and out of mind,” Royer said. “It could be a very small, simple project, especially for the smaller towns, rather than replacing everything in your system or upgrading your whole treatment plans.” 

At a press conference in April, Gov. Phil Scott said he believes the federal funds hold the most potential for impact in Vermont’s rural communities, which he said have been shortchanged by development and tourism efforts in recent years.

Craftsbury Fire District #2 commissioners seen at the municipal water system’s pump house May 2. From left to right are Polly Allen, Tim Patterson, Norm Hanson, Gina Campoli and Barb Strong. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Allen, though, has bigger questions about how effective the money can be in setting up Craftsbury’s water system for the future if it is simply directed toward refurbishing the old water system.

She wonders if the fire district’s volunteer model — which appears in many facets of Vermont life, from fire departments to selectboards — is the best way to run a modern water delivery system.

“We rely on volunteers, and that’s a beautiful thing about Vermont, but it’s also a very scary thing sometimes,” Allen said. “So I think the money should also be used to help Vermont navigate the 21st century, where it’s complex to run these institutions.”

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James Finn

About James

James is a senior at Middlebury College majoring in history and Spanish. He is currently editor at large at the Middlebury Campus, having previously served as managing editor, news editor and in several other roles there. James was a reporter this summer at the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and earlier was an intern at the Addison County Independent.

Email: [email protected]

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