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Middlebury struggles with aging water pipes

BRIAN MURRAY, A water maintainer with the town of Middlebury, tests water quality at a Middlebury home last week. Middlebury’s municipal water is now fine to drink following a spate of water main breaks, and local public works officials are sizing up improvements to the 54-mile system of pipes, some of which are more than 100 years old. Independent photo/John S. McCright

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials are working on a 10-year plan for upgrading the community’s 54-mile municipal water system — some of it more than 100 years old — that’s been springing an alarming number of leaks in recent months.

The system’s condition and shortcomings are drawing more scrutiny in light of last month’s sudden water surge that swept through the water mains last month, exposing weaknesses in the network of underground conduits that many take for granted.

It was just last Friday that a few hundred users in the Route 116 corridor got the “all clear” to resume drinking their water following line breaks caused by the surge, which has been compared to a high-pressure wave that traveled through the miles of conduits, causing breaks at weak points within the lines. Public works officials dealt with more than a dozen breaks, prompting a short-staffed department to put in long hours to effect repairs and restore service.

Officials believe the surge emanated from a hydrant off Creek Road that froze in an open position. After the hydrant thawed, water flowed through it at such a high rate that it caused a “pressure wave” throughout the town’s system, damaging mains and further weakening infrastructure in susceptible areas, according to Middlebury Emergency Management Director Tom Hanley — who lives in one of the most affected areas.

Those areas included most of Case Street; Munson, Airport and Cady roads; North Ridge; Mead and Drew lanes; parts of Route 7 South; and the Lindale Mobile Home Park.

Meanwhile, folks at Haymaker Bun Co. on Monday morning got their own, unwelcome and costly reminder of the water system’s fragility. The town temporarily cut off water service to parts of Bakery Lane — including Haymaker — to repair a leaky fire suppression valve on Main Street, according to Director of Public Works Operations Bill Kernan. The repairs began mid-morning and finished at around 11:30 a.m., he said.

Haymaker, in a Facebook post, said it received no notice of the shutdown, which resulted in lost sales, food and labor.

“I have asked multiple times to be made aware of when Bakery Lane will be shut down and never once have been given notice by the town,” reads the Facebook post from Haymaker’s Caroline Corrente. “Now I am not informed when I will need to shut down my business in the middle of the day. I love you, town of Middlebury, but please do better. This is unacceptable.”

Kernan said a public works employee was tasked with delivering printed notices days in advance of the impending shutdown. Kernan believes that a notice was at least dropped off at Haymaker, but the DPW worker believed to have handed it out suffered a medical emergency soon thereafter and hadn’t been reached as of Tuesday, according to Kernan.

“We’re human and we’re fallible,” said an apologetic Kernan, who said he’d spoken with Corrente about the matter.

The news will soon get better for those living and doing business on Bakery Lane. Middlebury residents next Tuesday will be asked to bond up to $1.2 million for the complete reconstruction of Bakery Lane. That project will include rebuilding of the roadway to accommodate vehicular and pedestrian traffic, addressing ongoing drainage issues, and replacing the existing water main, gravity sewer system, and pressure force main.

BEYOND BAKERY LANE

But what about the rest of the considerable water main network in town?

Middlebury DPW officials said during a recent interview they try to plan water main projects five or more years in advance, but the to-do list can change with an unforeseen conduit catastrophe or if a routine maintenance check reveals major problems. 

“Sometimes your priorities change,” Kernan said.

He harkened back to 2017, when a series of main breaks on Exchange Street — bordering Middlebury’s industrial park — demanded quick attention.

“After we fixed those leaks, there have been years without one,” he said.

Kernan said Middlebury sees around 15-30 water main breaks during a “normal” year.

“You never know how many you’re going to have,” he said, adding breaks have been system wide.

“The system is old throughout, and we have different issues throughout, whether it’s backfill or soils or stray electrical currents that eat at the pipe,” he said. “Those weak points are what we found when (the recent water surge) happened.”

Emmalee Cherington, Middlebury’s director of public works planning, noted part of the issue is the varying age and fabrication of the town’s water system. The current industry standard is ductile iron, and there’s a lot of it in Middlebury’s system. There’s also a fair amount of cast-iron conduit that’s more than 100 years old. Counterintuitively, a lot of the older stuff is still performing at peak, officials said.

Cherington said the system’s complement of universal water piping seems to be causing the most problems. It’s a variety that was used a lot during the 1960s, she said. Typically, problems occur at the joints of the water main segments as they give way to decades of water and soil stress, DPW officials explained.

She cited Gorham Lane, Foote Street and portions of Court and Monroe streets as current priority candidates for water main work. The following water main replacement projects have either being completed during the past five years, or remain in engineering:

• Court Street — 175 linear feet.

• Colonial Drive — 795.

• Washington Street — 2,675.

• South Street — 3,200.

• Dow Pond/Case Street — 1,500. 

• Foote Street (in engineering) — 2,660.

• Charles Avenue — 785.

• Gorham Lane (in engineering) — 3,900.

The department tries to perform water main replacement in conjunction with any sewer and/or stormwater work that needs to be done in the same vicinity, to make sure the town has to excavate only once and can assemble the best possible funding package to pay for the work.

Depending on its fabrication, water main life expectancy can range from 60-100 years, according to Cherington. So based on the length of the system and an 80-year service life, the town’s goal is to replace 0.675 miles (3,564 feet) of water main per year, according to Cherington.

RISING COSTS

But rising costs of materials and recent market shortages have greatly affected communities’ ability to replace water mains. For example, Cherington noted waterline upgrades cost roughly $220/ per lineal foot in 2018. At that time, Middlebury’s annual budget for capital improvements was $235,310 — allowing the town to install roughly 1,070 linear feet of new water lines per year.

Fast forward to today. The town currently (FY’24) has $463,833 budgeted for water infrastructure capital improvements, but project costs have increased to $500-$775 per linear foot. Based on the $500 figure, the town’s budget only allows for 927 feet of improvements per year. To achieve its goal of 3,564 feet at the current installation cost, the town would have to bumpt its budget to $1,318,500 annually, according to Cherington.

Communities are getting an assist from Vermont’s Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest loans for water system repairs with forgiveness up to $750,000, depending on the size of the project.

“Many of our recent upgrades have used this funding,” Cherington said. “We have also been awarded grant funding through the Northern Borders Regional Commission, which offset $600,000 of project cost on Washington Street. Alternate revenue streams and grants are always considered to help ease the cost burden to our users.”

One of Cherington’s top priorities for this and future years is to see more redundancy and water reserves built into the municipal system. That means getting a second water storage tank installed on Chipman Hill and giving users an emergency alternative if there’s a break in their area.

“Our main goal is to create as many loops in our water system as possible within the system, so you can back-feed an area if you have to shut a line down,” she said.

Adding to the DPW’s woes right now is that its water department is at 50% strength as it tries to troubleshoot the growing problems. What should be a four-person team is currently two, though an additional hire will start March 1, according to Kernan.

“It’s been very taxing on staff,” he said. “They’re putting in long hours.”

Kernan said he doesn’t believe other aspects of the town’s water service have been compromised due to staffing shortages and the latest main breaks. He believes Middlebury water users get great service at a good price, and noted many other municipal water systems are dealing with similar challenges. 

“There are some communities in Vermont that are still using wooden (water) conduits,” Kernan said.

He urged patience as Middlebury grapples with its water system repairs.

“We anticipate it’s going to continue,” Kernan warned of current problems. “We definitely hope — and anticipate — it’ll slow down. We have some more work to do, from a maintenance standpoint. And when we do that, we could uncover additional issues.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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