Energy & Environment

Under pressure: Years of drinking water problems force Montpelier to confront an aging system

Contractors remove pavement in a preparation for a water main replacement on School Street in Montpelier on Friday, Nov. 18. Residents have grown frustrated by hundreds of water main breaks in the state’s capital that have culminated in frozen streets, closed businesses and water shut-offs. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

MONTPELIER — One after another, drinking water pipes are bursting in Vermont’s capital. 

The breaks — caused largely by unusually high water pressure that courses through the city’s old and tired veins — have created problems for Montpelier residents, businesses and institutions for years. 

A water pipe on School Street, which leads to Union Elementary School, has ruptured five times in the last few months, prompting Montpelier’s Department of Public Works to close the street for a month or more to complete an emergency repair projected to cost more than $200,000. 

In August, one of the School Street breaks left residents of a nearby 15-unit apartment building without water for days

U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier, which hooks into the Montpelier water system, has closed because of water main breaks almost as often as the school closes for snow days. Boil water notices at the school have become common enough that staff “don’t blink anymore,” Principal Steven Dellinger-Pate told VTDigger. 

“That does not close school. It may have the very first time we did it, because we didn't know the drill yet,” he said with a laugh. “But now we have an entire system set up.” 

The headquarters of National Life Group, a building that also hosts state offices (including, ironically, the state’s Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division), has gone without water because of main breaks. 

Water pipes have ruptured repeatedly in front of residents’ homes, turning streets into sheets of ice in the winter and sometimes damaging lawns. Residents have reported oddities related to the pressure issues, such as burst garden hoses.

Water seeps through the road and flows down Bingham Street in Montpelier on Monday, Nov. 7. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As high water pressure stresses Montpelier’s aging pipe network, residents bear the burden of expensive fixes, both to public infrastructure and their own properties; inconvenient and sometimes dangerous situations; and an erosion of trust in their public drinking water supply.

Montpelier isn’t the only Vermont town with a chronic infrastructure problem. Aging drinking water pipes have recently caused problems in White River Junction, Barre and other towns across the state. Municipalities rarely have enough funding to address other old and costly infrastructure such as stormwater lines, sewage treatment plants and crumbling roads. 

But the scale of Montpelier’s problem appears to set it apart. From 2016 through 2021, water main breaks caused Montpelier to issue about 60 boil water notices to segments of the city. That’s more than other similarly sized cities and towns in the state, according to officials with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. 

Records show that Montpelier has experienced about 260 water main breaks in the last 10 years — on average, one every two weeks — resulting in about $1.3 million spent on emergency repairs. Those expenses are mostly separate from ongoing water line replacement projects. 

Like all municipalities with water systems, Montpelier needs approval from the state’s Agency of Natural Resources to operate. This year, the issue has come to a head: In Montpelier’s 2022 permit, state officials told the city it must take a more comprehensive approach to address its longstanding problems, particularly with regard to water pressure.  

City officials have been reluctant.

Kurt Motyka, who was recently promoted to lead Montpelier’s Department of Public Works, and Bill Fraser, the longtime city manager, have resisted placing too much blame for the city’s chronic problems on pressure.

“I think the high pressures in Montpelier probably do have some contribution. But I don't think that's really the driving factor,” Motyka said. “I think it's really the age of the piping.”

Citing what could be extremely high costs of a total-system fix, he and Fraser have regarded Montpelier’s water pressure as an inextricable condition of the system. Instead of addressing pressure, they’ve opted to increase the system’s resilience by slowly but steadily replacing pipes. 

Dana Nagy, who supervises community operations at the Agency of Natural Resources’ Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division, has doubts about the city’s long-term plan. He believes Montpelier should instead undertake a system-wide assessment of its water pressure. 

“From my perspective, it's going to be more costly for the water system to spend the next 50 years trying to replace all this pipe, but not actually fixing the problem,” Nagy said. 

This week's Deeper Dig podcast: What’s next for Montpelier’s water system?

The bathtub effect

Berlin Pond, Montpelier’s drinking water source, is perched about 450 feet uphill from Vermont’s capital city. 

A serene spot for kayaking and birdwatching, the 256-acre body of water also provides a relatively cheap and energy-efficient way to supply Montpelier’s pipes: gravity. 

Berlin Pond is the city of Montpelier's water supply. The 256-acre body of water uses gravity to supply Montpelier’s pipes. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Water from the pond flows to the nearby treatment plant, where it’s filtered. Then, the water rushes steeply downward toward the golden dome of Vermont’s capitol building where it serves about 8,700 people through almost 3,000 service connections.  

Many towns and cities with similar gravity-fed systems rely on devices to ease the water pressure as it reaches its destination, keeping it within the state’s recommended ranges of 35 pounds per square inch (psi) at the lowest and between 60 to 90 psi at the highest.

But Montpelier is shaped like a bathtub. In order for the water to ascend the hills on the city’s far side, it must maintain speed as it moves through downtown. To that end, the system was designed to sustain what the state calls “exceptionally high pressures.” 

At around 200 psi, typical water pressures in the city’s downtown area are more than double the state’s standard. 

Neighboring Barre City, whose system serves about 14,000 residents, uses three large pressure-reducing valves to ease water pressure as it travels downhill by around 100 psi, according to Bill Ahearn, Barre’s director of public works. 

Barre has experienced six water main breaks that have required boil water notices in the last year. In Montpelier, the first half of 2022 saw 17 breaks, the majority of which required residents to boil water.

Over the last five years, Montpelier’s yearly average of water main breaks is similar to Burlington’s, Vermont’s largest city and about five times the population of Montpelier. Burlington has averaged 22 breaks in the last five years, according to Megan Moir, director of Burlington’s Department of Public Works. 

In that timeframe, Moir said, Burlington has issued only three boil water notices to its customers. 

Day-to-day pressure in Burlington’s drinking water system doesn’t exceed 130 psi at its highest, she said, and most of the system stays within the state’s standards. Burlington uses two pump stations to navigate its hills and keep pressure under control, according to Moir. 

“We have to be careful, because our pipes are very old,” Moir said. “If we go too much past the typical operating pressures, we end up causing ourselves more breaks.” 

Even if Montpelier fixes its pipes, “the pressure isn't going anywhere,” said Nagy, from the Agency of Natural Resources.

A collection of water bottles could be seen in the recycling outside Baird Street in August, when residents did not have drinking water in their apartments. File photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

He pointed to the apartment building on Baird Street that went without water for days last summer, subjecting residents to several days of bucket showers, bottled water, portable toilets and some flooding. 

The problem originated after a nearby water main break on School Street. When the water was turned back on, it blew through a pressure-reducing valve that was meant to protect the building’s old pipes from the city’s high water pressures.

Building landlord Lucky Boardman, who also owns a plumbing business, told VTDigger at the time that he shut off the water after realizing how many of the circa-1930s building’s pipes were failing, “come to find out we have almost 200 pounds of pressure going through the building versus 65.”

“It shook that old building’s water system and just caused havoc,” he said.

Until water pressure is addressed, it will continue to send shockwaves that “are then transferred into local plumbing,” Nagy said. 

System break-down

In Montpelier, breaks often come in clusters.

Breaks “are thought to be the result of aged distribution piping, exceptionally high-pressure conditions, and high-pressure transient events within the distribution system,” according to the state permit that allows Montpelier to operate its water system. 

“When we have a big leak, because our pressure is so high, as soon as that pipe breaks, there's a lot of water that's coming out all at once,” Motyka, head of Montpelier’s Department of Public Works, told VTDigger last summer. 

Flow changes caused by one break can create a pressure wave known as a “water hammer,” which ripples through the system, often causing other breaks.

“They sort of come in batches because of that effect, because of the water hammer impact,” Motyka said. “That’s very common when we have a large leak, that others will follow.”

Acidic, clay soils are also corroding the pipes — particularly ductile iron pipes, which were installed starting in the 1970s — causing them to fail before their lifespan runs out, he said.

Strings of breaks can stretch thin an already short-staffed Department of Public Works, emails obtained by VTDigger show. Staff have worked through the night, sometimes in the dead of winter. Many residents who have written to the city asking questions about breaks and boil notices also commend the department’s staff for herculean repairs.

Contractors remove pavement in a preparation for a water main replacement on School Street in Montpelier on Nov. 18. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In July 2020, a resident, who said she had an infant in the house, wrote to the department, concerned that she couldn’t find any information about why her water had been shut off, or whether she would need to boil her water when it returned. The resident called police to confirm that a pipe had broken. 

“When I got up Friday morning without water, I went to the city webpage: nothing there,” the resident wrote. “I went to the Public Works department page: nothing there. I refreshed my search several times; still no notice posted. Nor was there a notice sent out on the emergency notification system.”

Donna Barlow Casey, then the department’s director, wrote back, telling the resident that Montpelier’s “system broke down around the water main break.”

“We actually had 3 nearly simultaneous and overlapping water main breaks,” she wrote. “The largest was on Sherwood (Drive), and our existing staff of eight worked 20 hours before shutting things down to go home and rest for 5 hours before returning to finish the job.” There had since been two other water breaks on the same street, including one that day that was “still being dug,” she said.

In September 2019, Barlow Casey responded to another resident who asked about a water main break on Sibley Avenue that led to water shut-offs, boil water requirements and road closures, according to the emails. 

The Sibley water main leak “was not the only spot in the City that required our attention,” Barlow Casey wrote, citing other breaks on Sabin Street and Summit Street. 

“These were also not insignificant events — evidenced by the fact that one of them resulted in the creation of two sink holes that required immediate attention,” she said. 

Staff logged extra hours, she said — sometimes double shifts — to fix the situation promptly. 

‘Too much to keep up with’

In Montpelier, residents of Marvin Street have witnessed one water main break after another. In the two years since Sophie Lewis moved to the neighborhood, pipes have broken in front of her home twice.

“​​The first one was in the dead of winter. It was really cold, so everything froze right away, which was really dangerous,” she said. “I mean, it was just like an ice skating rink.” 

Eileen Shine walks near her home in Montpelier on Monday, Nov. 7. Her neighborhood has been plagued by water issues. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Water pooled at the bottom of the hill nearby, she said, creating another icy surface. Although it was a Sunday, Lewis said the city’s Department of Public Works arrived within a half-hour to make repairs. 

Then, last summer, water began to bubble and run down the street. Again, workers arrived quickly, she said. But the water kept leaking overnight. 

“It was ridiculous, because the water was just pouring out,” she said. “It was pouring into an empty lot next to me and down the hill and, you know, possibly into people's basements.” 

She and her neighbors called the city, and workers returned, repairing the leak until around 8 p.m.

“That's a hassle. That's not fair for them,” she said. “But it's also not great to have gallons and tons of gallons of water just pouring out.”

Marvin Street has long been a fragile spot for water main breaks, according to records of city work orders, obtained through a public records request. 

After inspecting one house on Marvin Street, a worker wrote, “We have had many leaks on this lawn, at least 4. Sidewalk has settled and cracked so we are replacing sidewalk and doing some topsoiling.”

The lawn of a different home on the same street “had settled as a result of prior water main breaks,” another order from 2014 states. 

Marvin Street homeowners Eileen Shine and Rich Horchler have seen their own share of breaks. 

Shine’s house, at the corner of Marvin and Bingham streets, is located at the bottom of four hills. During a break, water typically rushes toward her home and makes a mess near her lawn, but it hasn’t yet impacted her gardens or yard, she said. 

Horchler has also contended with another problem: A slow trickle of water is flowing from a crack in the middle of the road outside his home to a storm drain. The flow of water passes in front of his driveway, and it freezes in the winter. He suspects it might be a slowly leaking water main. 

Homeowners Eileen Shine, left, and Rich Horchler live near each other at the intersection of Bingham and Marvin streets in Montpelier. “They’re hard workers, and they’ve always been very responsive,” Horchler said of Montpelier's Department of Public Works. “I just think they have their hands full. It’s one break after another after another, and it’s just too much to keep up with.” Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Horchler lauded the efforts of the Department of Public Works, and said workers always come quickly when there’s a problem. 

“They’re hard workers, and they’ve always been very responsive,” he said. “I just think they have their hands full. It’s one break after another after another, and it’s just too much to keep up with.”

‘Why is my water brown?’ and other FAQs

According to state water rules, municipalities need to issue boil water notices when a break in the system causes pressure to drop below 20 psi. Pipe breaks can cause low pressure, which “can suck in anything from the outside — E.coli, any sort of bacteria, things of that nature,” Nagy said. 

Residents are instructed to boil their tap water before drinking it, or find another water source, until samples can be tested to ensure the supply is not contaminated, which typically takes at least a day.

Montpelier’s water is chlorinated, which reduces the potential for contamination, even during a break. Still, according to Ben Montross, who manages the state’s Drinking Water Program, chlorine doesn’t always take care of the issue. 

“Just because there is chlorine in the pipe doesn't mean there's enough,” he said. “We take a protective approach. We don't want to make those risks. We want people to be aware of what's going on and be able to make sure that public health is protected.”

When the city issues a boil water notice, officials hand deliver notices to residents, post on the city’s Facebook page, its website, on Front Porch Forum, the Department of Public Works’ weekly newsletter and through an organized group of residents called the Community Action Network. When a boil notice impacts the whole city, Montpelier uses VT Alerts, which issues notices to everyone who’s signed up.

City Center in Montpelier. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Still, records of correspondence between city officials and members of the public show that residents are often confused about when to boil their water.

Resident Tamar Cole, who lives on the west side of the city, has written repeatedly to city officials to ask whether boil water notices apply to her home, and to understand why she’s lost water or why her water has turned brown. 

Sometimes, city officials told her that they were flushing the system or using hydrants. Water can turn brown because it’s changed directions, loosening harmless sediments within the pipe. 

“But sometimes, it was because there was a water main break,” Cole said. “That's happened at least two or three times.”

Cole, too, lauded the city’s responsiveness to her emails, but she said she wishes the city would more reliably alert affected residents over text or email. 

“It just seems like they're a little casual with something pretty important,” Cole said.

In 2021, city officials fielded enough queries from residents about the status of their water that they drafted a list of frequently asked questions for the city’s website. 

The list, which no longer appears on the city’s webpage, includes the questions: “Why is my water brown?”, “Why do I have no water?”, and, “How will I know if my property is affected by the water leak as far as Boil Water Notice?”

Businesses are impacted by the boil orders, too.

Steve Stoufer and Maria Manghi own Manghi’s Bread, a bakery on School Street, which has seen five water breaks in the last several months. One of those breaks caused the bakery to close, Stoufer said. 

Steve Stoufer, co-owner of The Manghis’ Bread bakery on School Street in Montpelier, makes granola on Friday, Nov. 18. The bakery had had problems with water main breaks in the past. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When the city issues a boil water notice in the bakery’s vicinity, the bakery has to adjust — which typically means closing or ceasing production for the day. 

The Vermont Department of Health lists procedures that are required for food establishments during boil water notices. Restaurants must boil water or find another water source, such as commercial water or hauled water from an approved public water supply. 

“If you cannot ensure food safety by following these methods, immediately stop food operations,” the document says.

“If we close, we certainly can't have our staff here who are reliant on their jobs,” Stoufer said. “It's our business so, you know, our daily bread is our daily bread, so to speak. It’s our income, and if we have to not have a day of income then that's — yeah, that's inconvenient. For sure.”

Motyka, the public works chief, has been forthcoming and helpful with regard to the upcoming road work on School Street, Stoufer said, and has offered to find a way to maintain the bakery’s water, even if the water line is temporarily disconnected. 

City Center building owner Doug Nedde paid about $20,000 to fix a water pipe that ruptured earlier this year. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I thought that was above and beyond,” he said. 

Earlier this year, a pipe ruptured as it was carrying water into Montpelier’s City Center building — home to businesses, restaurants, state offices and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Occupants left the building for two days. The pipe was on building owner Doug Nedde’s side of the property line, so he paid about $20,000 to fix it. 

About a dozen people, including members of Montpelier’s Department of Public Works, helped repair the leak, according to Jeremy Marrier, a property manager on Nedde’s team. 

“The number one talking point was the city water pressure,” Marrier said. “It's what comes up every single time there's an issue with a water line. Everyone talks about the city's high water pressure, along with spikes. Tends to be a known issue within Montpelier.”

$30 million and a war over ‘should’ 

Records show city officials nearly appealed their most recent state-issued permit over the requirement that the city take concrete steps toward addressing water pressure. 

In emails to other city officials, Motyka listed “numerous concerning conditions included in this permit.”

“The worst of them is noted below,” he wrote, then copied a section from the permit where state officials required the city to create “a plan and schedule” for lowering water pressure “to approximately 60 psi and not less than 35 psi while maintaining a minimum of 20 psi.”

Motyka asked other city officials whether they would support appealing the permit, calling it a “blatant overreach of regulatory authority” in an email to Fraser, the city manager.

“Absolutely. That’s a ridiculous and unnecessary condition,” Fraser said. 

Motyka forwarded Fraser’s email supporting an appeal to Geoff Wilson, chief operator of Montpelier’s water filtration facility. “This means war,” he wrote, followed by a smiley face emoji. 

Motyka’s argument hinges on the wording of Vermont’s Water Supply Rule, and the legal difference between the words “should” and “shall.” 

The rule states that the “minimum working pressure in the distribution system should be 35 psi and the normal working pressure should be approximately 60 psi.” 

“When static pressures exceed 100 psi, pressure reducing devices should be provided on mains in the distribution system,” it says.

In response to a 2020 inspection letter that asked Montpelier to address water pressure, Motyka wrote to city officials that because “the rules say ‘should’ instead of ‘shall’ I see this as a request and not a requirement.”

Reducing downtown pressures from 200 psi to 60 psi would “eliminate service to all of the higher elevation water customers unless we installed multiple pump stations and potentially water storage tanks,” Motyka wrote to other city officials. 

Changing the system pressure would require land acquisition and “a complete reconfiguration of the way the system works,” he wrote, estimating that it would cost around $30 million.

Strings of breaks can stretch thin an already short-staffed Department of Public Works, emails obtained by VTDigger show. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

After several emails between city and state officials, Nagy, from the Agency of Natural Resources, agreed to tweak the permit language. The final language requires the city to undertake an analysis of different solutions to fix water hammer issues, identify “elevated pressure conditions routinely present within distribution” and determine strategies for reducing those conditions. 

Montpelier is also required to draw up a plan that includes a prioritized list of critical infrastructure improvements “necessary to provide an uninterrupted supply of water to the maximum extent of the (system's) customers,” the permit reads. 

While city officials continued to express concern about the permit, they didn’t appeal it. 

Asked why, Motyka told VTDigger he was comfortable with the language in the final permit. Montpelier has since hired a consulting engineer to analyze the hydraulic system, and will soon issue a report with its findings. 

“When the state at first issued the draft permit, the language was much more directive about what we had to do. It was more like, ‘You will develop a plan to reduce your pressures,’” he said. “We said, you know, there's no easy way to do that. The city was constructed with this type of high-pressure system.”

The final language didn’t focus on actually changing pressure, Motyka said. It was “really just about evaluating alternatives, rather than developing a plan to implement,” he said. 

Asked whether the city would consider addressing its high pressure, Fraser said the city will look to the recommendations of the forthcoming hydraulic analysis. 

“I think we want to do what's best for our system, and for users of our system,” he said. “We'd want to see what the information said, and we would want to figure out the cost and the time and what it would take to do that.”

City officials want to be conscious of costs to ratepayers, Fraser said. Pump stations are expensive and may require the city to choose between replacing lines and addressing pressure. Pumps can pose a risk of mechanical problems and require more energy. 

Because of the elevation changes in the city and the infrastructure that would be required to ease pressure downtown, then boost it back up the hills, addressing it “just doesn't seem like an economical approach to it on our end,” Motyka said. “We think it's better to, you know, address the old pipes and get those fixed, and that will really resolve the issue.”

‘An essential, critical priority’ 

John Hollar, who served as Montpelier’s mayor from 2012 until 2018, ran on a platform of fixing infrastructure. He didn’t focus on water and sewer infrastructure immediately, but rather on roads, he said. Soon, it became clear to him that water needed to be addressed. 

With other city officials, he came up with a plan he described as “very long term” — “just because of the amount of money that's involved in bringing that infrastructure up to par,” he said.

He called the number of water main breaks and associated boil water notices an “unacceptable situation.”

“The city is in a real bind because we have a relatively high tax rate, and when you're facing these tens, hundreds of millions of dollars of needed improvements, it's a real challenge,” he said. 

Nagy said federal funding from President Biden’s infrastructure bill could help Montpelier address its water problems. Fraser said the city has been replacing run-down pipes and has replaced the water mains along all of Northfield Street, from Main Street to the Berlin town line. Now, it’s working to replace water mains on East State Street, from Main Street to College Street — a $7 million project.

The projects are big, partly because the city repairs the roads and water mains at the same time to avoid ripping up pavement twice.

Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson said the city has funneled some of its money from the American Rescue Plan Act toward replacing water mains on East State Street.

Those big projects are “our way of being proactive about the situation,” she said. “And it's going to take years to update the whole thing, in part because it's so expensive, but also because it's so old.”

Motyka said he “hasn’t seen a clear pipeline to easily obtain federal funding for water replacement yet.”

“I think it may be coming,” he said. “But again, is pressure reduction what we should be applying for, or should it be line replacement? That's the question we're working on.”

Municipalities across Vermont have struggled to access federal funding for infrastructure projects, according to Moir, head of Burlington’s Department of Public Works. 

“Even though the funding from the Biden bill is unprecedented, we have an unprecedented need that has been sort of compiling over time. It is not enough,” she said.  

Even if federal funding doesn’t take care of the entire problem, Nagy said, “right now is the best time that we’ve had in our lifetime” for funding influxes. 

“It's now,” he said. “The funding sources that are available now are, like, once-in-a-lifetime funding sources. I mean, this is the time.”

Water seeps through the road and flows down Bingham Street in Montpelier in November.f Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Watson and members of the city council said they were not aware that the state’s Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division had urged Montpelier’s Department of Public Works to address water pressure more holistically.   

“That's not something that is really on my radar,” Watson said. “I have no doubt that our staff will consider it and weigh the costs. And then, you know, if it's not mandated, it will be a policy decision.”

Lauren Hierl, a city council member and executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group, said she hadn’t heard that the state has encouraged Montpelier to look at pressure. 

“As a city councilor, you often defer to your department,” she said. “You don't always know what to ask.”

Motyka said the issue “wasn't really fitting for a council briefing, just the permit requirements,” noting that the department has a number of different permits to manage. He briefed councilors on the hydraulic assessment, he said. 

City councilors need to make sure the system is up to date and meeting the state’s criteria, Hierl said, and she expressed interest in learning more from the state. 

“Obviously, clean, safe drinking water, and people not having to worry about boil water notices, is an essential, critical priority,” she said. “It seems like this needs to be on our priority list.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: emma@vtdigger.org

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