Vergennes eyes $18M sewer fix

In order for us to see some of the additional housing we would like to see, we have to have the most modern and effective sewer system possible.
— Mayor Jeff Fritz

VERGENNES — Vergennes sewer ratepayers might in November be asked to support a multi-million-dollar bond to fund an upgrade of the city’s wastewater collection system and sewer treatment plant that could not only benefit the environment but possibly provide an economic development boost. 
The Vergennes system has for decades been plagued by overflows of hundreds of thousands of gallons into Otter Creek, almost always after heavy rains. Although the vast majority of the stuff going into the creek is water, some of it is human waste.
For almost as long, the city has also been under state mandates to address the problem. 
Now the city is investigating an estimated $18.2 million solution that might end up on the November ballot. With help from outside funding sources, officials said ratepayers could be responsible for $4 million.
At the Vergennes City Council’s April 14 meeting, councilors approved a “Long Term Control Plan” to which Vermont Agency of Natural Resources officials had already given preliminary approval. 
It calls for a $18.2 million fix, with potential grant funding from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Northern Borders Regional Commission, the Department of Environmental Commission’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To pay the city’s projected $4 million share, city sewer users would see their base per-unit rate increase from $669 to $889, according to estimates.
City Manager Dan Hofman this week told the Independent he believed that was as much as the city could reasonably ask from ratepayers.
The November vote and its amount is far from certain. Testing this summer will reveal the full extent of the fix needed, and Hofman said funding sources require voter support before they commit the grants, although promises would be made beforehand.
“To get the funding you would need the bond vote,” he said. “Before you even do the bond vote you would know how much they would commit to you.”
But if the funding doesn’t come through after a vote, the city would not be on the hook for the larger amount, Hofman said. 
“If you don’t get the funding, oddly, then you can pull out,” he said. “That’s the way it works.”

Research this summer could produce a higher or lower number, Hofman said. 
That research will include a “smoke test” throughout the system — literally, waiting for dry weather and then blowing smoke into the system and seeing where it pops up. Engineers will also run a camera through sewer lines and inspect such items as manhole covers and catch basins.
Project engineer Dexter Lefavour of Tata and Howard Inc. told the council last week the main issue is infiltration of surface water into the collection system. He said the smoke test would identify broken pipes, as well as roof and storm drains and catch basins that are now emptying into the collection system and should not be.
“The problem with the system is inflow,” Lefavour said. “That water is not supposed to go into the system.”
Historically in sudden heavy rain that water can overwhelm the pump station at Macdonough Drive through which all the wastewater on the east side of Otter Creek is funneled.
Even if the project is ultimately not funded and done this year, the city now knows how to proceed in the future, Hofman said.
“We certainly have a clear path forward as to how we want to identify the problem,” he said. “Maybe we don’t do the project. Maybe we just wait another year on the project. But we needed this Long Term Control Plan.”
Lefavour placed the collection system fix at around $7.2 million. He will return to the council this coming Tuesday to talk a rebuild, upgrade or expansion of the sewer treatment plant itself, a project with a preliminary price tag of $10.7 million. Hofman said there are several options on the table for that project. 

Vergennes officials have also said, particularly in discussions of the alternate truck route now on the Vermont Agency of Transportation drawing boards, that solving the wastewater overflow problem could also allow the city’s sewer system to serve as an economic driver.
Vergennes Mayor Jeff Fritz this week discussed the sewer system and the region’s economic future. 
“It would be unrealistic to expect a developer to come in and develop a $5 or $10 million project without confidence in our sewer system. In order for us to see some of the additional housing we would like to see, we have to have the most modern and effective sewer system possible,” Fritz said. 
Fritz held out hope that there would be funding for infrastructure projects in COVID-19 recovery stimulus packages that would help pay for the city sewer rebuild, but even without that specific funding he said the project should go forward if at all possible.
“It will be the real economic driver for our recovery here,” Fritz said.

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