City officials looking at sewer system fix options

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council wrestled last week with how to move forward on a comprehensive city sewer system upgrade tentatively estimated to cost $23 million. Councilors will take up the question again at their meeting this coming Tuesday, Aug. 24, and might now be looking at a March bond vote, according to City Manager Ron Redmond.

For close to 30 years Vergennes has been operating under Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) orders — most recently an order issued in 2018 — to stop Combined Sewer Overflows of stormwater and sewage into Otter Creek.

At times those overflows have totaled hundreds of thousands of gallons, mostly but not all rainwater, and have come from the system’s Macdonough Drive pump station. That station serves all of Vergennes east of Otter Creek and can become overwhelmed after heavy rains, especially when combined with snow melt.

Officials said the treatment plant on the far bank of the river also needs work. Hoyle, Tanner & Associates civil engineer Jennie Auster told the council on Aug. 10 the plant’s lagoons are too small, its filtration system is inadequate, and its main building requires updating.

There are three interrelated components to the roughly 60-year-old system, officials said: the plant, the Macdonough Drive pump station, and stormwater and sewage collection.

The collection system is a major issue, allowing too much rainwater infiltration and inflow — Auster referred to it as “I and I” — that is the major cause of the Combined Sewer Overflows.

Redmond said Hoyle Tanner estimates the treatment plant work at $9 million, the collection system’s at $6.75 million, and the pump station upgrade’s at $2.5 million. Engineering, design, permitting and contingency costs increase the total to around $23 million.

There are funding sources to help with each element. The USDA’s Rural Development branch appears solidly behind the treatment plant upgrade, Redmond said; Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office has placed $3 million in a federal infrastructure bill for the pump station; and the DEC is discussing using American Rescue Plan Act funds to support collection system work.

But an issue for the council on Aug. 10 was the plans Auster presented for the treatment plant appeared further along than those for the other major elements of the system.

Councilors said they were concerned that Auster’s plans did not appear to adequately address the system’s central problem — the Macdonough Drive pump station’s inability to handle peak stormwater flows.

Councilor Mel Hawley said three previous improvement projects to improve the 60-year-old system had not addressed the issue, and that he would prefer a shorter-term focus on inflow problems.

“I understand the need to update the plant,” Hawley said. “But what I would hope … we don’t do for the fourth time … is spend more money, or the lion’s share of the money, rebuilding the wastewater treatment plant, only to find out that we still don’t have a handle on the I and I that gets to the Macdonough Drive pump station.”

Others echoed that concern.

“I think the council needs to have some discussion before the 24th … to better determine what our priorities are,” said Mayor Matt Chabot.

Auster said, however, some of the funding to make needed upgrades to the plant is only available for a limited time, and she asked the council to consider acting quickly. She also told the council that some plans were in place to move quickly with the ARPA money (such as clay pipe replacement), and full plans would be forthcoming.

“I just want to clarify that one is not without the other. We were looking at all three pieces concurrently,” she said. “Separately, it’s just a question of positioning yourselves for funding.”

In an interview with the Independent this week, Redmond said he took responsibility for councilors not fully being up to speed on the sewer project. He said since the meeting he had met with Chabot, Auster, Hawley, plant operator Rick Chaput and public works director Jim Larrow, and he and Auster had contacted DEC and USDA representatives about funding, with reassuring results.

Redmond said they were working on a streamlined presentation for the council that would clarify plans, and would probably recommend a Town Meeting Day bond vote rather than one during late 2021 to give officials and residents time to absorb information.

“I want to make sure I’m able to synthesize in such a way that our council and our citizens are assured that I’m looking out for them, that we’re going to take care of the priorities that need to be taken care of,” Redmond said. “Which we are. We just need to articulate it.”

Councilors on Aug. 10 did make decisions on two smaller infrastructure issues.

They agreed to spend up to $25,000 from the city’s  Water Tower Fund to pay for improvement projects to Vergennes City Hall and the Vergennes Opera House, including new single front doors to the theater that meet state fire codes and “removal, restoration/repair and installation” of the opera house storm windows.  

Councilors also approved a motion to increase the Vergennes Fire Department budget by $35,000 to fund work at the Green Street station, including “excavating around three sides of building and repaving and reshaping asphalt to keep water from entering the foundation and basement.” The money will come from the department’s current surplus and not affect taxpayers.

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