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Recent Water Main Breaks Highlight Vermont's Infrastructure Problems

Peter Hirschfeld
Montpelier had three water main breaks over the past few weeks. On Saturday Feb. 2, during very cold snap, frozen water flooded part of downtown.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Vermont’s clean water infrastructure. The state has a lot of old pipes buried under the ground, and experts say that without a massive investment we’re bound to see more property loss and flooding.Water main breaks in Montpelier recently flooded the streets downtown. After a water main break in Winooski, part of the city was on a boil-water notice and school shut down for a day.

In Brattleboro, a broken valve released about 160,000 gallons of water right in the center of downtown. Three businesses had to shut down, traffic was backed up and crews had to deal with ice build-up while they tried to put the sidewalk back together.

"It seems to be happening more now than it used to, and that's definitely gotten our attention." — Ellen Parr Doering, Department of Environmental Conservation

The Brattleboro Public Works Department said crews will be cleaning up the mess on Main Street probably into next week.

“We're having trouble trying to get a good shutdown with all the valve boxes that we need to get into and stuff like that. They’re all frozen,” said Mike Earle, utilities supervisor in Brattleboro. “So we couldn’t get to access the actual nut to operate the valve to get a good shutdown. It took a lot of time to try and do that. But we ended up getting it.”

Earle said the department knows they have rusting valves and fixtures all over town and water main breaks like this are just bound to happen from time to time.

“I think it’s like the third one that we’ve had this year, or in the past couple years,” he said. “So there’s a lot of old, old stuff that was put in that’s starting to come back on us.”

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Brattleboro Utilities Supervisor Mike Earle continues working on the sidewalk above a water main break on Main Street.

And Brattleboro’s hardly the only Vermont town with old stuff that’s starting to come back. There were three water main breaks in Montpelier over the past few weeks, including one that flooded downtown streets during a cold snap.

“It seems to be happening more now than it used to, and that’s definitely gotten our attention,” said Ellen Parr Doering, the deputy division director with the Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Vermont a C- grade on its 2014 clean water infrastructure report card. Parr Doering said Vermont municipalities have a big job ahead of them if they’re really going to take a proactive stance and take care of their water lines before they bust.

The state is pushing an "asset management plan," and clean water officials want towns and cities to get a better understanding what’s under the ground, to put some money away and to start fixing things before they break.

Parr Doering knows there are a lot of demands on municipal budgets, and it’s easy to ignore the rusting pipes — but when we get big temperature swings like we had over the past few weeks, she said, that’s when we’re reminded.

“It’s been an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation, so deferred maintenance is something that’s happened because, you know, there’s only so much money to go around,” she said. “So, in the winter, when especially with the see-sawing of temperatures, that just makes the problem worse in terms of what the frost action might do on public water infrastructure.”

She said the recent spate of water main breaks highlights the importance of putting a plan together, because it’s only a matter of time before a rusting pipe or valve breaks and causes damage.

“There’s no way there’s enough money around to get this all fixed tomorrow,” she said. “And so people are starting to realize they need to move in that direction.”

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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