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State Pushing Montpelier to Replace Water Pipes More Quickly; Citizen Group Calls for Action

A water pressure gauge in the basement of city hall shows a water system pressure of 192 pounds per square inch (psi) recently. Pressure levels are lower at higher elevations. The state of Vermont believes water system pressures should range from 35 to 90 psi. Photo by Phil Dodd.
In a June 28 letter to Montpelier officials, the state Drinking Water Division seems to back away from requiring the city to reduce the city water system’s high pressure, but also said it wants the city to replace its aging water pipes at a much faster rate than had been proposed in a city consultant’s preliminary engineering report (PER). Faster replacement could potentially lead to higher costs for water system users.

“It is imperative that the Water System work with urgency to replace the 11% of pipe beyond its useful life and address areas repeatedly affected by boil water notices, as the PER identifies another 35% of the distribution piping that is expected to exceed its useful life within the next 20 years,” the letter states.

The report, prepared for the Montpelier Water Department by the Dufresne Group, had called for replacing just 2% of the distribution system over the next five years. The system has 58 miles o distribution lines.

Meanwhile, a relatively new citizen group called Resilient Montpelier has sent its own July 5 letter to the city requesting more focus on and faster action to fix the troubled water system. The group plans to attend the June 12 city council meeting to present its concerns.

The Resilient Montpelier letter begins: “We are writing to express extreme disappointment with the City Council meeting of May 10, 2023, and with the subsequent failure of City administration to accord Montpelier’s water system crisis the urgency it warrants.  We urge the City to fully inform its residents of the scope and cost of the problem … and to embrace a truly democratic process to achieve solutions.”

The letter was signed by the group’s steering committee — Lisa Burns, Stanley Brinkerhoff, Greg Gerdel, Daniel Hecht, Dan Jones, Stephen McArthur, Albert Sabatini, and Andrea Stander — as well as 32 other individuals. (For full disclosure, Gerdel and MrArthur are both board members of The Bridge.)

“Ongoing water pipe breaks, boil water notices, closed schools and businesses, street closures, and excessive water pressure that accelerates pipe deterioration and damages private property represent critical safety and financial dangers,” the letter states at another point. “We believe these issues must be presented in a more transparent manner directly to Montpelier’s taxpayers, residents, and business owners,” including possibly by inserting notices into water bills.

In the last year or so, problems identified in the letter have brought increased attention to the city’s aging pipes, some of them 100 years old, as well as the water system’s water pressure of up to 200 pounds per square inch, perhaps the highest in the state. Last summer, the Baird Street Apartments were flooded when a pressure-reducing valve failed and high water pressure blew out the building’s interior pipes.

In January 2022, the state gave the city a permit to operate its drinking water system but also required it to provide “a system wide hydraulic analysis and a system improvements plan and schedule for review and approval.” The Dufresne Group’s preliminary report was meant to satisfy that requirement; the details of the final report are currently being negotiated by the state and the city.

The Dufresne report recommended the city continue its focus on replacing its aging water pipes and not take additional steps to reduce the system’s higher water pressure. Forty-six percent of the city’s water pipes need to be replaced at a cost of $61.8 million, even if another $20 million was spent to reduce pressure, the report 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 initially expressed concern about the high pressure. In an April 18 letter, the state said the pipe replacement strategy “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, another state official had characterized the city’s pipe-replacement-only approach as “kicking the can down the road.”

But the state now seems prepared to let the city go forward with pipe replacement alone.“As expressed in the Division’s June 23, 2023 letter, the Division maintains concerns about the high operating pressures; however, we acknowledge that that lowering system-wide pressures would be complicated and require a large upfront investment,” said the June 28 letter, signed by Allison Murphy, an engineer in the state’s Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division.

The letter continues: “The Division’s primary objective is protecting public health. The Water System and Dufresne Group assert that Alternative 3, focused on pipe replacement, is the fastest, most cost-effective alternative that addresses public health concerns; therefore, the Division believes there is a path to approve this recommended alternative if the Division’s public health concerns are adequately addressed.”

The report had also suggested the highest city priority should be addressing hydrants served by undersized lines. This priority should remain, the state said, but “from a drinking water public health perspective, the Division considers the water main breaking and requiring boil water notices to be more urgent.”

The June 28 letter from the state also directs the Public Works to implement management strategies to “prevent frequent, uncontrolled pressure loss events … from being a reoccurring issue.” It also asks the city to “outline additional data needs to inform investment and make data-driven decisions, and the strategies to obtain the needed data,” such as additional test pitting and pressure monitoring within the high-pressure zone downtown. 

Significantly boosting the rate at which water pipes are replaced will require more money, either from bonding, water rate increases, or state or federal funding. About the last possibility, the state’s letter noted that “[b]ringing this PER … to Division approval will facilitate funding options available for design and construction of pipe replacement and infrastructure modifications for data collection.”