Studying the system

Studying the system

Award of $20,000 will fund thorough study of municipal drinking water in Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO — The Department of Public Works recently received a grant to fund a comprehensive study of the town's public drinking water system.

The Drinking Water Asset Management Plan grant, administered by the Department of Environmental Conservation using state and federal money, annually gives funding to Vermont towns to take stock of their public drinking water systems.

This year, the DPW received the maximum grant amount: $20,000. The terms of the grant require an in-kind $5,000 match from the town, which will come from DPW employees' labor.

On Sept. 21, state and town officials conducted the final signing of the grant, which was approved by the Brattleboro Selectboard.

“It's a green light to go,” said DPW Director Steve Barrett. “Vermont has a number of public water systems that are vital to a community's health and economy, and this grant offers those communities the opportunity to look at their assets."

In this case, the asset is the entire drinking water system, all the way from the headwaters of the Sunset Lake dam and the Pleasant Valley reservoir to the pipes that deliver the filtered and treated water to homes and businesses.

“This [plan] is 100 percent focused on drinking water,” he noted. The wastewater portion of the DPW isn't involved in this project.

The DPW has a contract with Dufresne Group, an engineering firm, to conduct the Drinking Water Asset Management Plan.

The town has worked with Dufresne before, and this summer they were hired to oversee the bidding and construction phases of the Western Avenue water-main repair project.

“They have a water model of Brattleboro's entire system,” Barrett noted.

Preparing for the future

While this money won't immediately fund upgrades or replacements in the town's drinking water network, it could lead to future projects - and knowing the status of the system is the first step, Barrett said.

Dufresne's study will find answers to a number of crucial questions, Barrett said, such as: What are all of the parts of the public water system? Can the DPW operate the system more efficiently? Can they improve customer service? Can they improve the asset's life? How do they plan for repair and replacements? How can they continue to recruit and retain qualified staff to operate the facilities, respond to emergencies, and capture the workers' knowledge for future use?

By working with water department staff, Dufresne staffers will put together a report, Barrett said, and this will provide the DPW with an asset inventory, photographs, schematics, mapping, risk assessment, and the consequences and problems of failure.

This plan, Barrett said, “will set our priorities and justify our needs.”

Brattleboro's drinking water treatment plant was built in 1989 and has had no major upgrades since then, Barrett said, but workers have replaced the telemetry, motors, and pumps as needed.

“It's constant upkeep,” he said.

Four workers operate the drinking water treatment plant, and six employees take care of the pipes, hydrants, and metering. All are certified by state and regional waterworks associations.

The treatment plant filters the town's drinking water before sending it to a series of holding tanks, including the one, located behind the plant, that holds 3 million gallons of water.

Inside the treatment plant is a lab where staff conduct regular tests on the water, looking for 90 different contaminants.

“We test more than we should, and more than what's required, because we want to make sure the drinking water is safe,” said Barrett. “We meet or exceed all requirements” set by the state.

Several sources

The plant's life expectancy is about 20 years, Barrett said. And the reason it outlasted that estimate? John Highter.

“John gets a lot of credit for operating that plant to its best efficiency,” said Barrett.

Highter, who was the chief operator of the plant since it went online, retired earlier this year. “He was an incredible operator. He gets the accolades for keeping that facility [operating] for so long,” Barrett added.

The plant, located in a wooded area near the Brattleboro-Dummerston border, sits beside the Pleasant Valley Reservoir.

That body of water was built in the early-1900s by George Crowell, founder of the popular magazine The Household, who created Brattleboro's first water system - which he later sold to the town - to serve Brattleboro's sanitation and firefighting needs.

After one expansion in 1954, the reservoir went from a capacity of 80 million gallons to its current size of 140 million gallons.

The reservoir is fed by several sources: surface water from rain falling directly into the pool, the watershed area surrounding the reservoir, and pipelines running down from spring-fed Sunset Lake.

Some of Brattleboro's drinking water comes from three supplemental wells on the Retreat Meadows. The wells were built in the 1960s and 1970s, Barrett said, after a drought threatened the town's water supply.

Since the addition of the wells, the town has had no challenges to supplying drinking water to townspeople, including during last year's drought.

“Last year, we were fine,” Barrett said.

Barrett said officials with the Department of Environmental Conservation “really encouraged us to take this grant because it will help make us eligible for a state revolving loan fund for” upgrading drinking water treatment plants.

“When the opportunity came along for the grant, it seemed like a really good fit,” Barrett said, and it will give his department the tools they need to document the entire drinking water system.

Barrett expects Dufresne's final evaluation to arrive by May 31. After that, the DPW will conduct a series of public meetings on the findings with the Selectboard, the town manager, and townspeople.

“This will help us decide what to repair and when. It's the foundation of deciding on a major upgrade,” Barrett said.

“It's important to understand the life expectancy of the equipment,” Barrett said. “This is critical infrastructure."

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