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In Brattleboro, dry wells and plugged sewer lines

DPW director sees a surge in town water use as a direct consequence of more people being home all day

BRATTLEBORO—Steve Barrett, director of public works, opens the door to his sunny office to let in fresh air.

“There is hope everywhere,” he says on this bright morning.

Barrett’s upbeat attitude serves as a reminder to get outside and enjoy Vermont’s beauty even while the community practices social distancing to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The shift in the way we are living has had consequences for the town’s water and sewer systems.

Barrett estimates the town “is using an additional 100,000 gallons of water per day during COVID. We are also treating the same amount at the wastewater treatment facility.”

On the drinking water side of the system, the department has seen an increase in water usage similar to the community’s summer usage.

“This is totally explainable,” he said: More people are home, they’re washing their hands more, and they’re taking more showers.

Barrett added that this spike often happens in the summer — the department’s peak water-usage season — when people are being more active in the hot weather and they take more showers.

He said the town can also sell potable water to well-drilling companies, which use it to top up private dry wells, Barrett explained.

Through his conversations with staff from these drillers, he has learned that more private wells are running dry from increased usage.

According to Barrett, households normally use the most water in the morning as people are making breakfast and showering before leaving for the day. While the house stands empty, the well replenishes itself.

With people staying home all day, however, members of the household continue using the water throughout the day, and the wells have no time to replenish, he said.

Wiped out

Barrett is also seeing changes on the sewer side of the town’s municipal water system.

An increase in the number of synthetic wipes — disinfecting and cleansing — getting flushed down the toilet is “wreaking havoc” with both municipal and private sewer lines, he said.

These wipes don’t break down in water as toilet paper or paper towels do, Barrett added. As a result, they can snag inside pipes and cause blockages. They can also collect heavy substances like grease and “restrict the flow and plug the lines,” he continued.

At the town’s wastewater treatment facility, staff are finding more of these wipes caught on the system’s “collecting screens,” which filter solid materials that won’t break down out of the waste stream.

“I can’t emphasize enough that people use care and don’t flush these wipes down the toilet,” he said. “They should go in the trash.”

On a side note, Barrett said the wastewater treatment plant staff have pulled “anything you can think of” from the collection screens.

Such as?

Such as: billiard balls, jewelry, toys, dentures, and once even what appeared to be a bunch of shredded $100 bills.

As the department responds to COVID-19, Barrett said he is developing multiple plans.

“It’s ever-changing, so you don’t ever know” what projects can happen, he said.

The department generally uses March and April as a time to plan for large summer and fall projects such as paving, bridge repair, or other system upgrades.

Under COVID-19, however, Barrett has narrowed the DPW’s immediate operations to health and safety. This purview includes an increased and intense focus on maintaining the water and sewer system.

Barrett will move forward with the final designs and an application to the state’s revolving loan fund to upgrade the water treatment plant. The DPW is also in the process of designing a “cover” for the wastewater treatment plant to help mitigate odor issues.

Health and safety also includes some road maintenance and cleaning. Staff are grading the town’s gravel roads post–mud season. They’re also clearing the town roads’ drainage system, such as culverts, in anticipation of spring and summer rains.

Patching potholes also falls under the safety heading. Barrett said that while potholes can damage cars, they are more dangerous to people riding motorcycles or bicycles.

So far, the plants that supply the material to pave roads remain open to produce enough patching mix. Barrett said it’s unclear if these plants have the staff to produce enough mix for larger paving projects.

A staff member is using the street sweeper to clear debris from the paved roads and parking lots. This procedure removes both debris and dust from the roads. Staff are also picking up trash such as dog waste and food waste.

According to Barrett, the waste represents a health concern.

“It’s not healthy at all” to have dog feces all over the streets, he said. For example, the waste can run into the stormwater system and impact Whetstone Brook and the Connecticut River.

And the food waste? That attracts rodents, he added.

Pause on projects

Most of the DPW’s bigger planned projects remain on hold.

Barrett cited a variety of reasons: the work requirements might discourage workers from practicing social distancing, materials might be unavailable, or the project might require funding from the fiscal year 2021 town budget, which Representative Town Meeting members have yet to consider because Annual Representative Town Meeting remains postponed due to COVID-19.

One response to COVID-19 that Barrett believes will help him conduct business going forward is video conferencing.

The technology allows the department to gather multiple people on short notice and allow conversations with audio, video, and the ability to share digital files easily. The technology also cuts down on the time and energy used when people hop in their cars to drive to the location of a traditional physical meeting.

Crew members have also used video conferencing technology to contact Barrett from the work site and show him in real time the issues they’re confronting.

“It’s a new way of doing business,” he said.

Barrett feels grateful for town staff, both those at the DPW and those from other departments, for their hard work during this time. They might not expect pats on the back, but they’re on the front line of the town’s COVID-19 response and deserve recognition, he said.

“Thank you to my crews and town staff for stepping up to the moment,” Barrett said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #556 (Wednesday, April 8, 2020). This story appeared on page A6.

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