Dry Conditions Have Vermont Towns With Spring-Fed Water Pressing Conservation

Oct 14, 2016

A lack of summer rains has some municipal water system operators worried about their systems running dry. And a few towns are taking steps to lower consumption until we get more rain.

In the Bennington County town of Dorset, water conservation measures have been underway for about a month, but haven’t had much impact. So water system operators are now imposing restrictions on the 200 customers.

They’re turning off the water every night between midnight and 6 a.m., until the reservoir is back to safe levels.

Ben Weiss is chairman of the Prudential Committee for Dorset’s Fire District, which runs the water system. He says the 11-foot-deep reservoir is down about 6 feet.

"We have a 205,000-gallon reservoir that is fed by a series of springs that are above the reservoir," Weiss explains. "And the spring production has dropped down to between 70 and 75 gallons per minute. It's normally around 95 gallons per minute."

Weiss says about a month ago, Dorset began prohibiting outdoor water use such as garden sprinklers and washing cars. But the water levels continued to drop.

"It's fallen dramatically in the last couple of days," he says. "So we felt it's necessary to have this nightly shut-off of water so that we give the opportunity for the springs to regenerate and hopefully fill back to the level that it's at and not continue to fall."

"We felt it's necessary to have this nightly shut-off of water so that we give the opportunity for the springs to regenerate." - Ben Weiss, Dorset Fire District

In addition, customers are being told to boil all water used for consumption, including cooking and brushing teeth.

Weiss says adding to the problem are eight identified leaks in the system. That’s an issue in the Lamoille County community of Jeffersonville as well, where the 250 water customers were asked to undertake conservation efforts starting last week.

Between frosty hills and green fields, Jeffersonville doesn't look particularly dry at first glance. But groundwater levels are dropping enough to cause concern.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Jeffersonville Village Trustee Tom Wyckoff says they started concentrating on repairing leaks in the spring-fed system during the summer, when they first observed water yields dropping.

"We've been addressing leaks like crazy that we can find," he says. "Of course, they’re hard to find when they’re underground."

One of Jeffersonville’s two spring boxes is a little way into the woods, behind a horse pasture, not far from Smugglers’ Notch. Wyckoff says that normally, water is gushing out of the ground into the box. This week it's more like a steady trickle.

A peek inside this Jeffersonville spring box shows the water isn't flowing swiftly, as is typically the case.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Trevor Welch, the head water and wastewater operator for Jeffersonville, says they're hoping conservation efforts will keep the village from having to truck in water.

"Normally our reservoirs drop down a little bit during the day and then they're easily topped off at night," says Welch. "What we're finding is that they're not really topping off at night. We're just kind of maintaining. So as we see the gallons per minute drop down and we see our tanks not refilling at night, we decided we've got to get the word out there and let people know before there's a serious problem."

Welch suggests customers turn the water off while washing hands and brushing teeth. And he says some friendly household competitions – like timing how quickly you can shower – might make conservation efforts more fun, and more effective.

"So the more that we're talking about it and calling each other out on it – our friends and family – the bigger impact it's going to have," he says.

In Jeffersonville, where groundwater levels are low and the spring-fed system has known leaks, 250 water customers have been asked to conserve their water.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Other communities with spring-fed water systems – from East Berkshire to Danby – are feeling the strain as well. But not all of Vermont is technically experiencing a drought.

Greg Hanson is a service hydrologist at the National Weather Service, in Burlington. He says the National Drought Monitor has part of Vermont categorized as being in a drought and the rest of the state listed as “abnormally dry.”

"For the most part, northern Vermont, northeast Vermont is in that abnormally dry category," Hanson explains. "It gets even drier and drought-ier the further south you go."

Hanson says a combination of low snow totals last winter and a lack of soaking rains is catching up with Vermont.

The Brewster River in Jeffersonville, like rivers all around Vermont, is running quite low.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"The spring snow melt that we had, the rivers never really went as high and that melt went out earlier," he says. "So we just started out kind of behind the eight ball all summer, and we've never had enough rain to kind of make up for that deficit."

Ideally, Hanson says, that deficit will be replenished slowly, over the next few months.

"Generally, we'll need a good period of heavy rain, over a longer period of time, to really make this go away," he says.

Hanson says the shorter, cooler days of fall mean less evaporation, so any rainfall we do see this time of year will be more beneficial.