Home News and Features July Flood Has Delayed City Water Pipe Replacement Plans

July Flood Has Delayed City Water Pipe Replacement Plans

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Efforts by the city of Montpelier and the state to agree on a schedule for replacing the city’s aging water pipes have been held up by the July flood and the city’s attempts to deal with its aftermath, including financial impacts, according to engineer Stan Welch of the Dufresne Group, which was hired by the city to study the water system.

“We had planned a pretty aggressive schedule of pipe replacement and then going after funds to help pay for the pipes, but things were disrupted by the flood,” he said. The city hasn’t been able to review the proposed schedule and is facing uncertainties regarding its finances, such as how much of the city government’s $10.8 million in flood damage will be reimbursed by FEMA, he said.

Dufresne was hired by the city to study the water system and prepare a preliminary engineering report (PER). That document needs to be accepted by the state in order for the city to complete the requirements of its state drinking water permit. Earlier this year, Dufresne released a draft report that was said to be 90% complete but subject to state input and approval.

In a June 28 letter to the city, an engineer in the state Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division, Allison Murphy, wrote: “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 draft PER, prepared by the Dufresne Group, had called for replacing just 2% of the 58-mile distribution system over the next five years. But the state has called for a faster rate of pipe replacement.

The flood hit not long after the June 28 letter and at a time when the city and state were close to agreement, but now the city’s situation has changed and it may be a year or two — or more — before the city can initiate an aggressive pipe replacement plan, Welch said. The delay could potentially impact the city’s ability to take advantage of federal infrastructure funding that has recently become available.

Welch also noted the challenges of designing an aggressive replacement schedule: “Is a $40 million project feasible? Can we get the contractors to do the work? Will residents put up with the roads being torn up? Will the cost be palatable to water customers? We need a plan that will thread the needle.” 

Water line breaks because of the age and condition of the pipes have been an ongoing issue in the city, as have damage to homes and businesses when high pressure and line repairs caused pressure-reducing valves to fail. Some property owners have said their water heaters, faucets, shower heads, toilets, or washing machines have been destroyed by high water pressure when their own pressure-reducing valves fail.

The city’s water pressure is far higher than the state’s recommended pressure levels, and earlier this year it appeared the state might push the city to find a way to reduce the pressure. Dana Nagy, drinking water community operations section supervisor for the state of Vermont at the time, told The Bridge last winter that the city’s 50-year, $83.2 million plan to replace half its aging water and sewer pipes, with most of the activity beginning in 2040 and beyond, was unacceptable (another $83.2 million would be needed for sewer line replacement). “The current approach does not address the high pressure,” he told The Bridge. “It’s just kicking the can down the road.” 

However, by the time of a May 10 City Council meeting, attended by Nagy and Murphy, the state seemed to be backing away from requiring a change in pressure — which Dufresne said would be complicated and expensive — and instead was pushing for faster pipe replacement. 

The state is “pretty understanding” of the post-flood situation facing the city, Welch said. Turnover at the state has also slowed progress, he noted. Nagy has left the Division for another job in state government.

Welch said he is personally eager to reach an agreement and finish the report, but said he did not know when that would happen.