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City Council Gets Update On Water System Report

image of kitchen sink with faucet running and hand under the water.
Photo courtesy of Petras Gagilas/Creative Commons
City and state officials will be meeting soon to negotiate final state approval of a preliminary engineering report on Montpelier’s troubled water system that was conducted by the Dufresne Group, city councilors were told at a May 10 council meeting. 

The two state officials who attended the meeting, as well as Dufresne representative Stan Welch and Montpelier Public Works Director Kurt Motyka, all pledged to work together to agree on the wording and conclusions of a final report, which was required by Montpelier’s state permit to operate the water system. The timeline for final state approval is uncertain, however.

The Dufresne report recommends the city continue its focus on replacing its aging water pipes and not take steps to reduce the system’s higher water pressure, perhaps the highest in the state. Forty-six percent of the city’s water pipes need to be replaced at a cost of $61.8 million, even if $20 million is spent to reduce pressure, Welch said.

The high pressure may be a contributing factor in the frequent water pipe breaks in Montpelier that can occur every week or two, and appears to be causing pressure-reducing valves in Montpelier households and commercial properties to fail prematurely. In addition, some property owners have also had their water heaters, faucets, shower heads, toilets, or washing machines destroyed by high water pressure when their pressure-reducing valves fail.

The state recommends that water systems have a water pressure between 35 and 90 pounds per square inch (psi). Welch said that in Montpelier, 51% of the city system has water pressure above 150 psi, and some locations approach 200 psi.

But reducing the pressure would be a complicated process, according to Dufresne. A number of new pumps, pressure-reducing vaults, and water tank changes would be required, all of which would take several years, at the conclusion of which the water system would be switched over all at once to a lower pressure system. The changes might also require hydrant replacement and sprinkler changes, councilors were told.

Motyka has said he believes the age of the pipes, not high water pressure, is the main reason the system is experiencing so many water pipe breaks.

The Dufresne report is considered 90% complete and has already been the subject of discussion between the city and the state. In an April 17 letter to the city, Allison Murphy, an engineer in the Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, included an attachment with 52 questions for the city and Dufresne. 

Dufresne recently sent responses to the 52 questions to the state, but Dana Nagy, drinking water community operations section supervisor for the state of Vermont, told The Bridge that the state had not had time to fully review the answers before the city council hearing. 

Some meeting attendees and councilors had expected the state to make a formal presentation to the council, but Nagy said he and Murphy were there just to answer any questions that came up. He said the state’s back-and-forth with the city was part of “the normal process.”

The state’s tone at the meeting seemed more conciliatory than it had in the April 17 letter, when Miller wrote that the pipe replacement alternative “does not address the remediation of high-pressure transient events or reduce areas with elevated pressure conditions; therefore, Alternative 3 (replacing pipe materials without reducing pressures in the high pressure zone) is equivalent to the ‘Do Nothing’ Alternative.”

Earlier this winter, Nagy had said the city’s 50-year plan to replace water pipes was unacceptable. “The current approach does not address the high pressure,” he told The Bridge. “It’s just kicking the can down the road.” 

If the state ends up accepting the Dufresne report’s focus on replacing pipes and not reducing pressure, it could still possibly force the city to move faster to replace pipes. Nagy confirmed that the state has that potential authority.

Motyka, who has said the entire water system needs to be replaced over a 100-year period, told The Bridge the city is currently replacing pipes at a rate that amounts to less than 1% of the system a year, but noted there are plans to increase the rate of replacement in future years. He said the 50-year plan is due to be reviewed in 2026.

The water system discussion attracted several residents to the meeting, five or six of whom offered questions and comments, including some urging city councilors to invest more in the system to fix the problems.

One of those was Scott Muller, an engineer, who said the water pressure in Montpelier is an extreme outlier and said he supported spending the money to both reduce water pressure and replace pipes. The high pressure is causing pressure-reducing valves to blow out and is creating a high-pitched noise issue for some residents, he said.

In response to one of several questions posed by Mayor Jack McCullough, Welch said Dufresne’s final report would include more suggestions for educating the public about the need for having and maintaining pressure-reducing valves in their homes.

Water and Sewer Rates to Go Up 6.6%

The Montpelier City Council approved a staff recommendation to boost water and sewer rates starting July 1 by 6.6%. The increase means the average household will see their annual water and sewer bill rise by about $89.

Council policy is to increase the rates by the inflation rate plus 1%, with the 1% going to infrastructure expenses and reserve. Staff had originally proposed an 8.7% rate increase based on the inflation rate at the time of budget development, but after a review of the consumption data and consideration of the burden on rate payers, they recommended using the inflation rate as of the end of March, which resulted in a lower rate increase.

Asked by a resident how Montpelier’s water and sewer rates compare to other water systems in the state, city manager Bill Fraser said “we are on the higher end of rates, but not the highest.”

A year ago, Montpelier’s rates were hiked by 8.2%. The increases the prior two years, when inflation was low, were both below 3%.