Energy & Environment

The Deeper Dig: What’s next for Montpelier’s water system?

Water seeps through the road and flows down Bingham Street in Montpelier on Monday, November 7, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Montpelier residents put up with an unusually high number of water main breaks, which, in recent years, have led to boil water notices, expensive emergency repairs and school and business closures. 

The city’s aging pipe system, some of it nearly a century old, is straining under unusually high water pressure — which in some locations is more than double the state standard. This is due to the system's unusual design, which relies on the force of gravity, rather than pumps, to push water through Montpelier’s downtown and back uphill to the city’s outskirts. 

This year, state regulators instructed city officials to take a more robust, system-wide look at how to prevent pipes from bursting, starting with the water pressure. But local officials disagreed with this approach, arguing it was too expensive and ignored what they saw as more feasible solutions. City Manager Bill Fraser, and Kurt Motyka, who leads Montpelier’s Department of Public Works, have argued that the city should focus instead on replacing weak, corroded pipes with more resilient ones that can withstand the pressure. 

After a back-and-forth over the city’s water permit, state regulators relaxed their request for a system-wide overhaul. But the question still looms: How will the city address its water infrastructure going forward, and what will it cost to do so?

Read Emma Cotton’s full story here. Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity. 

Riley Robinson: Can you tell me about how Montpelier gets its water, and why that system is so unusual?

Emma Cotton: So Montpelier is shaped like a bathtub. 

And the water that Montpelier residents drink comes from Berlin Pond, which is this beautiful pond located up on a hill in Berlin. The water comes down through the pipe system into the downtown area. That elevation change is around 450 feet, which doesn't sound like much, but    those hills are pretty steep. 

And then it has to go through the downtown and go back up to higher elevations on the other side. Other cities have systems where as that water comes down and into the downtown area, or comes down a hill, there are pressure reducing devices. But Montpelier does not have a system like that. Montpelier relies on gravity. 

Riley Robinson: Here I’m talking to Emma Cotton. She covers energy and the environment here at Digger. And lately, she’s been taking a look at the water system in Montpelier. The capital city faces a literal million-dollar question — really a multimillion dollar question — about some pretty crucial infrastructure. 

And Emma will explain this more in a bit, but the state and the city don’t necessarily agree on what to do next. 

Emma Cotton: They have a few pump stations to get water back up the hills. But mostly, they're relying on that sort of high water pressure to operate the system. So what that means is that water pressures in Montpelier, in the downtown area, are around twice the state standard for what water pressure should be. So the state recommends that, on the higher end, that water pressure is around between 60 and 90 pounds per square inch, or psi. And in Montpelier, it's 200 psi. 

So there are some really big ripple effects, so to speak, from this. For example, this summer, there were a number of water main breaks in this one area. And when one water main breaks, and they turn the water back on after they've been working on it for a little while, it starts the water suddenly, and that causes a ripple of pressure to go through this system. And that's called a water hammer. So what happened this summer was that water hammer, that intense wave of pressure, broke a pressure reducing valve on an apartment building in Montpelier. And then once the pressure reducing valve was broken, the normal water pressures of the city just sort of ripped through this old apartment building’s really old pipes. And all of those pipes sort of collapsed in the building. There was flooding in the building and residents went without water for several days. 

Riley Robinson: When there's significant damage to a building, to someone's home, who pays for that?

Emma Cotton: From what I understand, there are processes you can go through with the city, if it's very apparent that this is caused by city water pressure, you know, you can go through the city's insurance process to be reimbursed. But I know that there are a number of residents who have not been able to sort of prove that the problem that they've experienced is from high water pressure, and so that that gets left to them. And sometimes these can be really expensive problems to fix. So very often, you have residents, as long as it's on their property line, you have residents and business owners who are paying for these fixes.

Riley Robinson: How often, in the past few years, has there been a water main break in Montpelier?

Emma Cotton: Over the last 10 years, there have been around 260 water main breaks in Montpelier, according to records that we looked at for the story, which, if you break it down, it's around one every two weeks. It doesn't happen quite like that. But that's a pretty significant number of water main breaks, many of which have been pretty disruptive for the community. 

Riley Robinson: So what happens when a water main breaks? There's sometimes a boil water notice, but why would that happen? 

Emma Cotton: Water main breaks, from what I understand, can come in different shapes and sizes. There are times when the Department of Public Works can sort of get it under control before they have to issue a boil water notice, but what typically happens is that water starts to sort of spew out of the pipe and the system loses pressure. And once the system loses pressure, below 20 pounds per square inch, then the system is required to issue a “boil water notice.” So that means that anyone who's affected by that particular stretch of pipe — it's not usually the whole city, it's, you know, people in a segment of the city — they need to boil their water, if they have water. 

Riley Robinson: So, boil water notices — basically the pressure is so low in the pipes that it could potentially suck in things into the pipe system? 

Emma Cotton: Exactly, exactly. So, you know, contaminants, E. coli, debris, when the water system experiences that low pressure, it can suck those kinds of things into the water system. 

Riley Robinson: So what did you hear from people in Montpelier about this? How does this affect their day to day? 

Part of this is boil water notices, and part of it is water shut offs. So typically, when you are repairing a water main, you have to shut off water for a little bit of time. So both of those things can be pretty disruptive. 

We heard that U-32 Middle and High School has had to close school a number of times over the years. I think it's been around once per year, sometimes twice a year, because they don't have water. They know how to deal with boil water notices now. They said they don't even blink anymore. They can handle that. They have a whole system that’s in place because they deal with it so often.

Steven Dellinger-Pate: If we have a boil water notice, we can get potable drinking water pretty quickly throughout the building. So it's not a problem for us. Our kitchen can operate if they go to a paper plate system, so they don't have to do dishes. We don't blink anymore with a boil order. We know how to do that one pretty easily.

Riley Robinson: This is Steven Dellinger-Pate. This is his ninth year as principal at U-32. 

Steven Dellinger-Pate: There's some little things you have to think through. We've got extra water. We actually fill up with water jugs that are on standby, should we ever go into that situation. We go fill them up from our central office, because they have a well, and so we go fill up all of our water jugs and truck them back over here, and we set them up throughout the building. 

Riley Robinson: Steven said the water shutoffs started a few years after he arrived at U32. 

Steven Dellinger-Pate: The first couple of years, nothing happened. And then suddenly, you know, there was that day, like five years ago, where I walked into the building and they're like, ‘There's no water.’ Like, what does that mean? Literally no water coming out of the faucets. And for us, the biggest issue is you can't flush a toilet. You can't have 1,000 people in a building in which you can't flush the toilet. 

Emma Cotton: Yup, that sounds like a problem. 

Steven Dellinger-Pate: I say if we can get any kind of water into the building, we’re fine. Because that's really the biggest concern.

Emma Cotton: Did you hold any roles in schools before you came to Montpelier?

Steven Dellinger-Pate: Oh, yeah. I was a principal for seven years before that in Hartford, Connecticut.

Emma Cotton: OK. Any problems like this, there?

Steven Dellinger-Pate: Never had run into that before. I mean, boil notices there? Yes. No water? Never had that issue. 

Emma Cotton: And were boil water notices a common thing in Connecticut, would you say?

Steven Dellinger-Pate: No. I think I dealt with it maybe one time in my career. 

Emma Cotton: Whenever a restaurant is issued a boil water notice, they have to take a number of precautions to make sure that the food that they're serving is safe. And if they can't take those precautions, they have to stop serving food. So we talked to the owner of Manghi’s Bread, who said they have closed a number of times because they don't have a setup to boil their water. 

Steve Stoufer: We're dependent on water to operate. So we had a closure one day over the last couple of months. Other than that, I think there have been about five different times where they've had to dig on the street. 

Riley Robinson: That’s Steve Stoufer. Steve and his wife, Maria Manghi, own Manghi’s Bread on School Street in Montpelier. School Street is closed right now for an emergency water line repair. 

Steve Stoufer: It's definitely a severe and severe impact. It's severe enough that if we close, we certainly can't have our staff here, who are reliant on their jobs. It's our business so you know, our daily bread is our daily bread, so to speak, and if we have to not have a day of income that's, yeah, that's inconvenient. For sure. 

Emma Cotton: They've been able to make that work. I think they have sort of the flexibility to, you know, absorb a closure every now and then. But for other businesses who have struggled during the pandemic, closing down for a day can be really difficult and disruptive.

I think this is a problem we see around the entire state: We have old infrastructure, and typically not enough money to do something about it. And I think Montpelier has some really tough questions to ask about how much to pay for this system.

Water pressure is what makes Montpelier different than other communities. But it's not the only source of the problem. Montpelier also has really old water infrastructure. 

Some of it is around 100 years old, some of it is less old. And it was installed a few decades ago, starting back in the 1970s. These are ductile iron pipes. And they are failing before their lifespan is up. 

Montpelier has acidic clay soils that react with iron and sort of corrode the iron pipes. So this is sort of a compounding issue: You have this high water pressure, you have water hammer issues where the pressure gets really high after a break or something happens in the system. And then you also have these pipes that are sort of falling apart, just because of the way they're reacting with the soil that exists there. 

So Montpelier has really tried to focus on replacing pipes, and installing pipes that are going to do better in those soils. They're installing copper pipes. I think there's maybe some plastic pipes that are going in. So that's sort of been their mission — over a series of decades, we're going to install new water mains that can withstand the pressure, and that will not corrode in the soils.

Riley Robinson: But the state has the power to regulate and permit local water systems. And those regulators said mmmm… hold on there. 

Emma Cotton: In their most recent permit, the state has said, Yes, we agree you need to replace your pipes. But you also need to address water pressure. 

When this first came out, and city officials were learning that the state was going to require this of them, there was some big pushback from city officials. Because they felt like they already had a plan, they didn't feel like addressing pressure was the most effective way to fix the system. And they acknowledged that this was going to be a really big, really big cost. And they were nervous about what that was going to do to ratepayers.

Bill Fraser: The only thing with pressure is, this system was designed a long time ago. And it's the water pressure that pushes water up to the water tanks on the other side of town. So it's a whole hydraulically balanced system, if we were to cut down on water pressure coming into the city, we would then have to build a series of pumps to fill the water tanks on the other side of town. 

Riley Robinson: That was Bill Fraser. He’s been Montpelier’s city manager for decades. 

Emma Cotton: You're trying to use the least amount of energy, right. And I think that's one of the city's concerns about installing more devices that control pressures, that, you know, they want to keep energy costs low, they want to use less energy, and it does take energy to pump water up the hill to slow it down. It's also incredibly expensive. 

Kurt Motyka: And so taking an approach of reducing pressures, that we would then have to boost again, you know, construct another pump station, potentially, or a series of pump stations, in order to continue to serve the upper regions of the city, just doesn't seem like an economical approach on our end. We think it's better to, you know, address the old pipes and get those fixed. And that will really resolve the issue. That's my opinion.

Riley Robinson: This is Kurt Motyka. He leads Montpelier’s Department of Public Works. 

Kurt Motyka: So, yes, we did have some back and forth with the state. You know, wrote a few letters back, trying to convince them that that was the right approach. And in the end, they did revise the language. 

They reissued the permit, but with the revised language that was less restrictive, and it was really just about evaluating alternatives, rather than developing a plan. 

Emma Cotton: And so the city is now engaged in a hydraulic analysis. They've hired some folks to come in and sort of understand what the water pressure system looks like in the city. And the city officials are saying, ‘We're gonna see what the results of that are. And we're going to move forward with their recommendations.’ But city officials in the past have really put up some walls against holistically addressing water pressure. 

Dana Nagy: We talked through it and tried to come to an agreement, but in the end, you know, this is what — this is what the permit was. 

Riley Robinson: This is Dana Nagy. He works on local drinking water at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. He’s one of those state regulators that went back and forth over this permit.

Dana Nagy: 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. 

Emma Cotton: And the state, I think, really believes that this is what is setting Montpelier apart, this is what's making them have such high numbers of water main breaks, and so many boil water notices. So there's a little bit of tension there, I would say. 

Bill Fraser: I don't think we're predisposed to fight anything, you know. I think we want to do what's best for our system, and for our users of our system, and we 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. 

You know, I think the issue with the pumps is, they're also really costly. And so the same ratepayers are going to be paying for them. And if we're installing pumps, we're not replacing lines. So I think, you know, there's just a lot of decisions to be made. 

Riley Robinson: Just thinking about this, I can see why city officials might push back on this language. If I'm understanding the cost bit right, it sounds like the state could come in and say, ‘You need to kind of redesign how water is delivered. And it's going to be very expensive to the relatively small number of people who live there. And you're going to have to pay for that.’ Right?

Emma Cotton: Unless there is infrastructure money that they could use, or federal funding from the infrastructure bipartisan law that they could use. 

So I've talked to folks about that as well. And I think the problem right now is that there doesn't seem to be a clear pipeline toward getting that funding for this specific use. I think the money that’s sort of tied up in those federal bills is a little bit more tricky to access than we understand, as members of the public. And you sort of have to have a direct line of access toward that funding, which just doesn't totally exist for something like, addressing water pressure in a municipality, at this time. 

I think something might open up that helps them apply for that funding. And officials at the state are certainly saying this is the time to take on a project of this magnitude, if you're going to, because there is federal funding floating around. It's just a matter of sort of determining whether and how Montpelier can access that money. 

And the other problem too, is that Montpelier probably will need to address its drinking water pipes, which is a really expensive project already. Some of these projects are multimillion dollar dollar projects. So addressing pressure would probably be in addition to those existing projects, not instead of, which is — again — expensive.

Riley Robinson: I'm just thinking, this past legislative session, it seems like there was a lot of optimism about the possibilities for working on infrastructure. Like this was a moment. This is a moment where we have the capital to do these big projects. There was a pretty large chunk of money set aside specifically for water infrastructure. Do you think that's going to address the kinds of things that we're talking about now? Or are there other water infrastructure things in the state that are more of a priority?

Emma Cotton: I think the goal is to be able to address everything. But I think there are some priority projects like addressing PFAS, and addressing lead, that some of that money has been specifically allocated for, which just makes the pot for the rest of the money a bit smaller. 

So I think these projects are also expensive enough that while we see those numbers, and we think, ‘Wow, that's a really big number, we're gonna be able to do so much with this’ — some of these projects are, you know, millions of dollars. Replacing one water main in Montpelier is a $7 million project. So when you start thinking about how many water mains need to be replaced, how big of a pot that money is, and then all the other municipalities that also need to do things, it just starts to get harder and harder to access that funding. 

Riley Robinson: Are there other communities around the state that are dealing with similar water infrastructure problems?

Emma Cotton: There are. I mean, any number of communities around the state that are dealing with water infrastructure. I mean, there was a big pipe replacement project in Bennington recently, where they got rid of lead pipes. There have been big water main breaks in Barre and White River Junction that have been really disruptive recently. I know Burlington has had a similar number of water main breaks as Montpelier. They've had to issue less boil water notices, because they have typically sort of been able to maintain pressure in their lines.

I wouldn't be surprised if some other communities were experiencing water main breaks because of that combination of clay soils and iron pipes. When you start to factor in water pressure, I think with Montpelier, that is one of the factors that sets them a little bit further apart.

Riley Robinson: You went through a lot of public records for this piece. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you found? 

Emma Cotton: One of the interesting things that I found was that city officials were very responsive to folks who were writing in with concerns. And that's something that I heard from the people I talked to — over and over, they would have a concern, they wouldn't know why their water was turned off or something. But they would always reach out and get immediate answers from the city. And sometimes when the city was responding to folks, they would sort of go into more detail about what they were going through, when all of these water mains were breaking. 

There was one email from a former head of the Department of Public Works, Montpelier that sort of struck me. She said that their entire system broke down around a water main break, and that they had three at one time. One of the water main breaks, you know, caused two sinkholes to pop up, which they also had to address.

I think staff at DPW have quite a lot on their plates with this problem. And sometimes it means that, you know, people at DPW have to work through the night, or have to work in the freezing cold to address one main break, only to have another pop up, because that water hammer effect often means that these happen in clusters. So sometimes it's just sort of three emergencies are going on at once. And you have staff who have to deal with that. And I think that's been a real challenge. 

Riley Robinson: I think a lot of the time water is one of those things that we take for granted. If you're in a building, if you're in a school, if you're in an office or in your home — you assume you can go to the tap and you'll turn it on and there will be clean, safe, drinkable water there. So for folks who don't think about this day in day out, why should they care about water infrastructure, especially at the local level?

Emma Cotton: A number of folks I spoke with brought this up, that we don't think about it until something goes wrong. And I think in reality, these systems need a lot of maintenance. It doesn't sound like a very exciting thing to put your money into, as a resident, as a rate payer. You know, we can be building parks, we can be building green space, we can be doing so much with that money. But you know, when these systems start to fail on us, I think that that's a pretty significant problem. 

You know, there's that expression in New England: It's sort of like, ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it.’ And I think, with this particular system, this particular system seems to be an example. Because  things are breaking really quickly. And so it's sort of something that I think if you look away for too long, you might be left with something that is really hard to fix.

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Riley Robinson

About Riley

Riley Robinson is a general assignment and multimedia reporter, covering stories across the state in writing, photos and video. She is a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and first joined the Digger newsroom as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.


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