Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.
Ciara McEnenany is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.
Communities statewide are set to start a series of wastewater projects funded by federal Covid-19 relief money.
These initiatives — overseen by the state Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Conservation — include sewer overflow abatements that aim to reduce pollution in streams and lakes, revitalization of public water systems in communities that cannot afford the costs, and helping some Vermont businesses upgrade stormwater treatments for impervious surfaces such as parking lots.
All the programs, six in total, are being funded through the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal Covid relief bill meant to combat economic hardships caused by the pandemic — with $640 million allocated for initiatives promoting clean water and mitigating the environmental stresses of climate change. Each program awards funds to multiple towns.
State officials chose which communities to put projects in through a “priority ranking system,” a triage system looking at how much each project costs and how needed it is.
“ARPA funding has allowed several communities to move forward with projects that they had planned to do,” state environmental engineer Win Wilson said. “And therefore, will also allow them to, in the long run, accomplish more projects, without taking on as much debt as they would have had to initially.”
One program — focused on combined sewer overflow systems and funded with $25 million from the federal act — seeks to help municipalities overhaul their wastewater release points. Combined sewer overflows are where rain, stormwater runoff and sewer systems flow together into a single source.
Wilson, who is the project manager for the sewer overflow grants, said updating the systems would help mitigate pollution in surface waters.
“Combined sewer overflows were put in place as somewhat of a safety measure to not cause backflow into homes and to overwhelm the wastewater treatment plant,” Wilson said. “But as a result, they also allow untreated sewage into the surface waters. And so abating the instances of overflow events is the goal of this program.”
As of late January, 11 Vermont communities had been awarded grants to update their combined sewer overflow systems. Many of the towns and cities had been looking to do so for more than 30 years but have not had the funding, officials said.
“The town had been working on this project prior to the award, and it was looking like the municipality would have to cover the costs,” Northfield Town Manager Jeff Schulz said. “So, ARPA funding was a huge help to cover nearly all the project.”
Work is on pause for the winter, Schulz said. When it resumes in the spring, he believes it will benefit his town on an environmental and a financial level.
“Having this project completed will significantly reduce the amount of stormwater going to the water treatment plant, which will further reduce the amount of phosphorus that we send into the river,” Schulz said. “Other ancillary benefits … will reduce our operating costs (and help us) to use less electricity and help lessen wear and tear on our equipment.”
Another project under the umbrella of the federal funds is a village water and wastewater initiative — with $30 million allocated for these projects — which aims to help villages develop new public drinking water systems and replace old, disparate wells with one unified wastewater system.
Relocating communities’ septic disposal areas and combining them in areas outside villages could help achieve the state’s housing and development goals, according to Lynette Claudon, chief pollution control design engineer for the Department of Environmental Conservation.
“From an environmental standpoint, it's really about a reduction in the global carbon footprint and having people be able to walk to the general store, work, and just having more of a healthy village downtown area,” Claudon said.
Town officials involved in the initiative hope vacant or unused buildings can be expanded to provide additional housing or business spaces that otherwise could not be built because of out-of-code septic systems.
The communities involved in the final stages of planning for these projects include Westford and Montgomery. Claudon said officials in both towns are trying to talk with the public about the projects and how the eventual construction will impact daily life.
Using $5.5 million in Covid funds, the state is also partnering with businesses to tackle runoff on properties with at least 3 acres of impervious surfaces — like those made with water-resistant asphalt that collect contaminants and let stormwater wash them into waterways
The program aims to replace those surfaces with what officials call green infrastructure — wetlands, floodplains and meadows that can naturally absorb and filter runoff.
The projects are all in the Lake Champlain basin on municipally and privately owned land.
The funding is meant to bring those properties into compliance with new state rules for mitigating the environmental impact of impervious surfaces.
The towns of Brandon and Hinesburg were the only two involved in the program as of last week, according to officials.
“We found all of the major cities that are considered three-acre sites, and we put out a request for proposals to find an engineering firm that would be willing to provide the engineering services needed to get all of these issues resolved,” said Megan Koss, the grant program lead.
The problem for a lot of towns and property owners, Koss said, is that the permits to do the work can cost a lot.
“It's meant to offset as much of the costs as possible for obtaining your permit,” she said. “So how that's going to work is, we will cover the cost of the three-acre permit application plus up to $20,000 in engineering fees associated with getting that permit.”
The state is working with contractor Watershed Consulting Associates to explore how these private-public arrangements can improve water quality, restore water resources and meet permit requirements, according to the firm’s website.
Sign up for our guide to the global coronavirus outbreak and its impact on Vermont, with latest developments delivered to your inbox.