Statewide Solution To Avoiding Sewage Spills Into Public Waters Remains Elusive

Feb 12, 2016

When rain mixed with snowmelt last week in Rutland, the resulting flows overloaded the city's storm water and sewer system. More than 100,000 gallons of untreated storm water and sewage poured into local creeks. State and local officials are trying to stop overflows like this, but there are few simple solutions.

In their efforts to cut phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain, state environmental officials reshuffled departments, formed task forces and drafted new rules to reduce pollution.

Last year, the Legislature passed what's now known as the Vermont Clean Water Act, which provided funding for some of those measures.

But at the same time, state officials are working to stop combined sewer overflows.

These overflows happen when a system carrying both sewage and storm water gets overloaded, like Rutland's did last week.

To that end, the Department of Environmental Conservation is updating the policy governing those systems for the first time since 1990.

DEC Commissioner Alyssa Schuren says the change will bring the state’s policy up-to-date with the Clean Water Act.

“Our overall goal with the policy is to ensure that all of our waters meet the water quality standards in the Clean Water Act,” Schuren says.

In some cities and towns, stopping sewage spills has been a priority for years.

Rutland Public Works Commissioner Jeff Wennberg  says his department and the residents who support it have done a lot to improve the city's system in recent years.

“The fee payers in the city of Rutland have put something in the vicinity of $11 million or over $11 million to address storm water issues in the last 10 years,” says Wennberg. “And we're probably going to be doing a lot more than that over the next 15 or 20 years.”

Vergennes has also spent millions in recent years on its system, which has problems with water infiltrating the system through cracked pipes, unsanctioned roof drains and basement pumps. Vergennes installed a flow meter in 2014, which tells the city how overloaded its system is, based on how much untreated water overflows.

Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley says the meter helps city officials figure out the scale of the problem.

“We know how much more infiltration we need to get out of the system,” Hawley said.

But for Rutland's system, Wennberg says it would be nice to be able to measure the flow at the end of a pipe.

“And then if there's flow going through that pipe, you have an overflow,” Wennberg explains. “And if there isn't [flow,] there isn't [overflow.] And if you're able to measure the flow you know how much it is. Wouldn't it be wonderful if life were that simple? But that's not how it works.”

So for Rutland, doing what Vergennes did with the flow meter might not be the best way to spend money.

And for Wennberg, that's the worry with the state's new rules.

“How much money do we have to spend that doesn’t, for example, do anything to address the overflow issue?” he asks.

Wennberg's worried the state will force municipalities to spend money monitoring problems, instead of fixing them.

"This is the kind of requirement that costs substantial sums of money that could be far better to use, if we had it, actually addressing combined sewer overflows rather than feeding a bureaucratic beast's hunger for data that it probably doesn't know what to do with." — Rutland Public Works Commissioner Jeff Wennberg

For example, Wennberg says one proposed requirement would require the city to have a rainfall-monitoring device for each of the city's overflow pipes.

But the city already has one of those, and he thinks spending money to place more of them in spots where the rainfall is virtually the same would be wasteful.

"This is the kind of requirement that costs substantial sums of money that could be far better to use, if we had it, actually addressing combined sewer overflows,” Wennberg says, “rather than feeding a bureaucratic beast’s hunger for data that it probably doesn’t know what to do with."

One size doesn't fit all, but state officials are still trying to come up with rules and funding that will keep sewage out of public waters.