Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After flooding, Vermont's rural water systems are picking up the pieces and looking to the future

Liz Royer, wearing blue jeans, blue shirt and a camo hat, stands in on mud cover asphalt. There is a water pump machine next to her.
Liz Royer
The Vermont Rural Water Association provides support and training for water system operators.

Heavy rains in July caused catastrophic flooding statewide. Those torrential downpours have continued into August, causing more flash flooding, filling homes and businesses with water, washing out more roadways.

Underneath those roadways lay the infrastructure of Vermont towns’ and cities’ wastewater and drinking water systems.

This summer’s flooding has impacted more than 30 wastewater treatment facilities, and a handful of communities are currently under boil water notices and using donated bottled and canned water until systems can get repaired.

To learn more, Vermont Public's Mary Engisch spoke with Liz Royer, the executive director of the Vermont Rural Water Association, a non-profit organization that assists communities with water issues and offers training for water system operators. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: I'm guessing things have gotten busier since July 10, can you help us visualize the damage and the impact to water systems that the flooding has caused in Vermont this summer?

Liz Royer: The flooding has shown and brought to light, literally, some of the infrastructure underneath the ground. The pipes and some of the pump stations and and things that you typically don't see, typically are buried — are suddenly exposed. So you are able to see, "Oh, that that pipe is broken." It's very clear, and the same thing in the treatment facilities.

Some of the wastewater treatment facilities, the damage looks pretty extensive. In some places, it doesn't look extensive. But really it's the silt, the water, and now the mold. It's some of the hidden damage as well that I think that is easy to forget, but the recovery is going to be a very, very long process.

Do you have a number of the the folks who are still under a boil water notices statewide as of today?

There's a few smaller systems. Then Middlebury is that the one who recently came home after the flooding on Friday. We have to remember, these flood events are going to happen more and more frequently. I think we definitely saw that on Friday with what happened in Middlebury.

Well, what's the focus been for Vermont Rural Water Association since the flooding began? Can you paint a picture of what that looks like in terms of folks being on the ground from your organization?

The first couple of days, the Monday and Tuesday, I think the 10th and 11th, we were really focused on communication and just reaching out to everybody. And finding out who had what types of equipment that might be available to lend out to the systems who were hardest hit. We have folks stationed around the state. Some of my staff wasn't able to get out of their homes because of the flooding.

Once the floodwaters receded Wednesday morning is really when we all hit the ground running and started getting all of that equipment out to the folks that really needed it. I personally was in Johnson and Hardwick on the 12th. Needs were kind of changing minute by minute; they weren't sure what they were going to be able to get back up and running. We had systems lending out equipment, and suddenly they needed equipment back for themselves that they didn't realize that was gonna happen. The operators are very focused on on getting things repaired.

Can you just describe what a water operator is, and especially what some of them have had to be doing since the flooding in July?

Water and wastewater operators have to be certified and licensed. They have to do continuing education training to maintain those licenses and those certificates. That's something that we do through Vermont Rural Water. A lot of the conversations about the flooding have been about the infrastructure, but there haven't been as many conversations about the folks, the operators who are there at these facilities, working around the clock.

At this point, they're really, really tired; they haven't really had any days off. They are so dedicated to these facilities, it's like another child for them in some cases. In Vermont, we have really, really small water treatment plants and wastewater treatment plants compared to other states. There's often maybe just one or two operators there. So if they're not there, working and trying to get things fixed and repaired, then nobody's going to come and do it. We appreciate those folks and the time and the dedication that they have.

And we were sort of mentioning this before, when roadways wash out from flash floods, they reveal like literally what lies beneath specifically those large PVC pipes or iron pipes, right if they're really really old systems. Can you give us an overview of what work still needs to be done to repair drinking water systems and wastewater systems?

A lot of repairs were made as quickly as possible. Everybody wants to wants to get those pipes back into the ground and get everything reconnected. But long term, it's like maybe those repairs were done a little too quickly. It's trying to figure out: is there a better type of pipe that we can put back into the ground that may be more resilient during future flood events? We're still having a lot of those conversations and figuring out kind of the best funding routes.

But yes, everyone is well aware that this is gonna happen more frequently, and that maybe we need to do things a little bit better than some of these pipes were put in 80 years ago and maybe not gonna hold up anymore.

Yeah. You just mentioned funding routes. That's my next question — paying for these fixes. What are you hearing from towns about costs?

It seems to be a combination — depends what they have for insurance, and then beyond that, they're looking at some of the FEMA grants. There's also the hazard mitigation funding. I think that's really what our focus is going to be — what things can we do to improve these water and wastewater systems and to make them more resilient.

Between Irene and then this flood event, I think we've learned this really can happen anywhere.
Liz Royer, executive director of the Vermont Rural Water Association

There's other funding sources as well. Moving a wastewater treatment plant — they're gonna have to go beyond the FEMA and hazard mitigation funding, looking at different state funding options, looking at USDA and some of the other federal money that might be available.

We've mentioned several times throughout just our conversation here, human caused climate change, is making these extreme weather events more likely, like the flooding that we experienced in Vermont, Vermont is even seeing six more inches of rain each year than it did in the 1960s. If municipalities do have funding to do these quick repairs, would you rather that they focus on something more long term or proactive?

Yes, we always encourage systems to be proactive. I think we may capitalize, I guess, on this opportunity right now, to really have those conversations a little bit more in depth? About, 'OK, you may have access to more funding right now than you will in the future.' It's not just flooding. We've seen the ice storms and the power outages. There's more and more happening that you need to be prepared, and you need to be proactive.

Every system has an emergency response plan, but how detailed is it? And how can you use that for different types of events, including flooding. So, we're definitely planning a lot of training and different types of outreach and advocacy to bring that message to everyone in the state and in the federal government as well.

Between Irene and then this flood event, I think we've learned this really can happen anywhere. We saw different types of flooding and those two events. I think it's really hit home now that they really do need to be prepared. Same thing with a pandemic. We had planned for the bird flu and all these other events and had all these tabletop trainings, then we never thought it could happen, and then it did.

We will have a huge focus on emergency response in the coming years.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
Latest Stories