What Can Be Done About Vermont's Aging Sewer Systems?

May 5, 2017

This month on Brave Little State, a subterranean question about wastewater treatment in Vermont.

Our brave question-asker is Mike Brown, who grew up in Rutland and now lives in Winooski. A while back, Mike started thinking about our state's water quality.

“I originally asked the question in August 2016," he says. "My landlord has a camp right on Malletts Bay, and nobody could swim in the bay. And that’s kind of what got me thinking, why is the bay not swimmable?”

Mike was also seeing stories in the news about Vergennes and Rutland having wastewater issues. He’d hear about thousands of gallons of sewage being released into Otter Creek.

“My dad used to fish in the Otter Crick,” he told us. “And fishing in the Otter Crick, at this point, is unimaginable. Because it has sewage problems.”

The idea of all this sewage started to preoccupy Mike.

Brave Little State is VPR's people-powered journalism podcast.
Credit Aaron Shrewsbury

“They’re required to tell people, but they’re not necessarily required to explain all the nuance of what’s happening there,” he says.

Are these system malfunctions? Did someone mess up and press the wrong button? And how is this connected with pollution in Lake Champlain?

“What are we going to do about this problem?” he wondered. “Because it’s stopping us from enjoying the lake.”

Mike figured there were a lot of reasons, but he was hung up on sewage. He also knew Vermont’s underground infrastructure is getting older. So he came to us with this question:

"How are we going to address the aging water sewer systems in Vermont?" — Mike Brown, Winooski

For this episode, Brave Little State teamed up VPR reporter Taylor Dobbs, who has been reporting on sewage issues for a long while (if you can believe it).  

And we did confirm that Mike has no political agenda here — he works for a software company, not a lobbying firm.

If he were a lobbyist, he would have known when he asked his question that sewage overflows are actually just a tiny contributor to what you may think of as Vermont’s biggest water problem: blue-green algae blooms. They come from something called phosphorus loading, and they’re what close the beaches on Lake Champlain. They've even killed dogs.

Just a few quick numbers here: Of all the phosphorus that Vermont sends into the lake, agriculture is the number one contributor, at 41 percent. And wastewater treatment plants and sewage contribute just 4 percent. This is according to the 2015 State of the Lake report, put out by the federally funded Lake Champlain Basin Program.

Obviously, the sewage overflows that spurred Mike’s question are totally gross. And they cause short-term health hazards, with E. coli and so forth — just over half of beach closures are due to high bacteria counts, which are often due to CSOs, according to the Lake Champlain Basin Program. But big-picture, CSOs aren't really what’s troubling Lake Champlain.

They do have their own troubles, however.

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How we got here

Many of the wastewater systems in Vermont are using really old pipes; during recent renovations in Rutland, the city removed some pipes that were installed — this is not an exaggeration — before Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860. But old pipes aren’t the only reason sewage overflows into Vermont’s waterways.

The pipes may be old, but the wastewater treatment plants — the part of the system that actually removes toxins and other pollutants from the sewage — are much newer. When the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1972, many parts of the state still didn’t have treatment plants. In order to comply with the Clean Water Act, cities and towns built treatment facilities in the 1970s and 1980s. They used federal funds that were approved with the Clean Water Act and built brand new, state-of-the-art facilities.

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In that era, the favored method for sewage treatment was called a “combined sewer.” These systems collect both sewage from homes and businesses and runoff from streets, parking lots and rooftops. The logic makes sense: Collecting and treating both street runoff and sewage makes for cleaner water than just treating sewage.

Those combined sewer systems were installed in many of Vermont's larger communities — Montpelier, Burlington, Rutland, St. Albans and Newport, to name a few. But there's a tradeoff involved in that strategy. Sewage treatment plants have a maximum capacity — there is a limit to how much water the facilities can treat at any given time. And when heavy rainstorms or snowmelts cause water to flow into the treatment system faster than the plant can send it away, there can only be unpleasant results.

When the systems overload like that, they can either allow that excess sewage and stormwater to back up into homes and businesses (which everyone seems to agree is not a good idea) or use “Combined Sewer Overflows.” The overflows are parts of the system designed to deal with overloads by simply letting some of that untreated sewage and stormwater go. Instead of flowing to the treatment plant, it flows directly into a river or stream instead.

The overflows were supposed to be rare — rules adopted by the state in 1990 said the systems should only overflow if there’s a “two-year storm,” meaning a rainstorm so severe that it’s only likely to happen every two years.

That’s not what happened. The systems overflow regularly; during the month of April, while we reported this story, there were 15 overflows totalling more than 1.3 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater. It’s important to note that 1.3 million gallons is a tiny fraction of the water that flows through Vermont’s rivers and streams in a given month. But it’s also probably fair to say that most Vermonters would prefer zero gallons of untreated human waste in the waters where they fish and swim.

To get a better sense of how these systems work and what’s being done to stop overflows, we visited Rutland, where our question-asker Mike grew up, and where Taylor has done some previous reporting about sewage overflows.

CSO field trip

We meet up with Jeff Wennberg, Rutland's commissioner of public works. He takes us to one of the city’s four CSO outfalls. This one is on the far end of Calvary Cemetery, right by Otter Creek.

One of Rutland's four Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) outfalls is on the edge of Calvary Cemetery, right by Otter Creek.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

Wennberg brings us to a big block of cement sticking up out of the ground, like a pedestal. He had two staff meet us there to lift a heavy metal hatch on top. When you climb up on top and look down inside, you can see water shooting through a huge pipe, probably big enough to stand up in. The water is heading to the city’s treatment plant.

Wennberg points to the rushing water: “That is the sewer. See it flowing in that direction, diagonally?”

Remember that a CSO is basically a junction. When there’s too much rain in the lines, the system starts working differently: Instead of going to the plant, untreated stormwater gets diverted — along with with untreated sewage — straight into the river.

Wennberg points out a stack of wooden planks that form a barrier just above where the water is flowing.

“So this gate, basically, is set up so that when the water backs up high on the sewer side, it’ll open up, allow it to overflow and go to the river,” he says.

A CSO is basically a junction: When there's too much rain in the lines, the system starts working differently. Instead of going to the plant, untreated stormwater gets diverted, along with with untreated sewage, straight into the river.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

When it’s not raining, the water continues past the gate — like it is on the day we visit — and goes on to the treatment plant.

Now, if you live in Jeff Wennberg’s head, heavy rain equals sewage overflows. So he’s constantly watching the weather and planning ahead.

“Every weather forecast, especially rain, is, OK, are we likely to have an event?” he says. “If it’s in the middle of the night, do we have to have people ready and understand that they could be called in?”

There’s a little camera set up inside the CSO, so city employees can keep an eye on things. But Wennberg says it doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to.

“After about a day, it fogs up, and it’s just a fuzzy blob,” he says.

The Achilles heel of the CSO is the big rain storm. And because of climate change, we're getting more of them, which means more overflows.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

And just like the camera, the CSOs themselves are operating in tough conditions. As we know, the pipes are old. And when these systems were put in, Rutland wasn’t nearly as developed as it is now. Plus, the Achilles heel of the CSO is the big rainstorm — and because of climate change, we’re getting more of them. It’s not a good combination, as our question-asker Mike figures out when he asks Wennberg how often, per year, that gate opens up and sends untreated water into Otter Creek.

“A year?” Wennberg says, mulling the question. “Anywhere from 20 to 30 times. And arguably, it would be great if we could get it down to one or two every five years.”

"Manage and control"

One way Rutland is trying to get that number down is by upgrading its systems. And technically speaking, it’s totally possible to do this. In his office in City Hall, Jeff Wennberg talks us through it.

Turns out there’s a way to take the “combined” out of combined sewers, and separate the pipes. Send the sewage to the treatment plant, and treat stormwater on its own, so it doesn’t cause overflows. This involves something called a swirl separator.

“[Stormwater] goes through a vortex chamber,” Wennberg says, and whatever’s floating in the stormwater that’s not supposed to be there get’s captured. Everything else goes into a stream.

“It’s amazing how much stuff comes out of there, and they do work,” he says.

But Wennberg says separation projects like that are not the answer to Mike’s question. For one, because it would be super expensive. Rutland installed a swirl separator in one single neighborhood in 2015, and it cost $5.2 million.

Plus, it didn’t even allow the city to retire one of its CSOs. It just takes the load (so to speak) off part of the system.

“If we were to separate everything on this map that's currently combined, you're looking at $120 million to $150 million ... Not only can we not afford it, it's bad policy." — Jeff Wennberg, Rutland commissioner of public works

“If we were to separate everything on this map that's currently combined, you're looking at $120 million to $150 million,” he says. “And that's to get rid of four locations.”

That’s just in Rutland. Across Vermont, there are about 62 other CSOs.

“Now what about the other 62?” Wennberg says. “Not only can we not afford it, it's bad policy.”

Bad policy, Wennberg says, because combined systems — when they’re not overflowing — are doing a much better job than separated systems. The swirl separator really can’t compare.

“It’s not even remotely close to what’s going on at the plant,” he says.

(Wennberg jokes on tours he gives that if he had to choose between drinking a glass of water from Otter Creek, and a glass of treated water from the plant, he’d choose the treated water. Though he did not demonstrate this for us.)

At this point, Mike’s opinion about sewage overflows is changing in real time.

“Part of me, deep inside, wants to rail against it and go with the popular idea of, let’s never dump anything into the river,” he says. “And what I'm trying to wrap my head around is the idea that it could be worse.

“Like, rather than removing all of the quote unquote 'spills,' there's advantages that we're gaining in how much we're treating the stormwater, versus the inevitable overflow that happens when a storm happens.”

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Vermont communities that rely on these systems may be between a rock and hard place. But Jeff Wennberg does see a different answer here: one that would keep combined sewer systems, but try to reduce overflows.

“To not throw out the baby with the stormwater, quite frankly. It makes more sense to manage and control,” he says.

And by “manage and control,” Wennberg means three things.

  1. Green infrastructure. Basically, this means that instead of forcing water into pipes and trying to move it somewhere else, you slow it down. Let it infiltrate into the soil, which is basically nature’s filtration system. Hang on to this idea, because we’re gonna come back to it.
  2. Grey infrastructure. “Great big concrete things,” Wennberg says -- like giant holding tanks for stormwater, so you can keep it from going into the system during a big storm and causing an overflow.
  3. Real-time controls. Fancy sensors, computer algorithms, inflatable dams. Really high-touch monitoring and tweaking of the system. Wennberg says Cincinnati is doing a lot of this, “and they've got a control room that looks like, you know, Mission Control in Houston, for crying out loud.”

“I think if we use all three, intelligently, we can make some dramatic progress here,” Wennberg says.

Nature's filtration system

We were particularly interested in green infrastructure. So we meet up with Mike at the Burlington Waterfront to check out a cool system they’ve installed.

It’s right by the skate park that’s named after Andy "A-Dog" Williams, and looks like a small pond with plants growing out of it. And “blue pipes sticking out,” as Mike observes.

It’s called a subsurface gravel wetland system, according to Jenna Calvi, the stormwater program manager for the City of Burlington — which, it’s worth noting, recently got approval from voters to spend $8.3 million on its water and sewer lines.

“The water comes in through these pipes," she says. "And then the water will move laterally through the system, so it removes all of the suspended solids and takes up some of the nutrients and pollution in the stormwater.”

It’s a natural version of the swirl separator Rutland installed — except it’s not diverting stormwater from the sewer system. Burlington has other projects that do that, but this one is just slowing down what would have run straight off the skate park and into the lake with no treatment.

A subsurface gravel wetland system near the Andy "A-Dog" Williams Skate Park on Burlington's waterfront captures and filters stormwater before it flows into Lake Champlain.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

“I mean, green infrastructure is a way to try to recreate natural processes,” says Dan Albrecht, of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, and Rethink Runoff, which is all about stormwater awareness and education.

Albrecht says the idea with green infrastructure is to let stormwater do what it used to do. The key word here is infiltrate: Let the water seep right into the ground, “as if there was not a parking lot there, or if your home were not there. A catch phrase you hear sometimes is 'slow it and sink it.'”

The gravel wetland on Burlington’s waterfront is a nice example on a larger scale of what homeowners can do, Albrecht says. And that’s what Rethink Runoff is all about: helping regular Vermonters be a part of this shift. Instead of using downspouts and gutters to send all your stormwater into the city pipes? Create some rain barrels and rain gardens, and deal with your stormwater right at home.

“I think the ideal state would be that folks think about stormwater the same way they think about recycling,” Jenna Calvi says. “I mean, recycling has become such an integrated part of our lives. Everybody, for the most part, recycles. We know how to do it. We know what to do with it. And I think in an ideal state we would think the same way about stormwater.”

It’s that special kind of thinking where you have to have faith that your small actions are contributing to a bigger change, even if you can’t see it.

"The ideal state would be that folks think about stormwater the same way they think about recycling.” — Jenna Calvi, City of Burlington stormwater program manager

“In the end, the collective impact will be significant,” Calvi says. “If we could get all of the homes in the city of Burlington to disconnect from the storm sewer system, that would be great.”

Great because it would take the strain off CSOs, and maybe reduce the number of overflows. And also great in terms of blue-green algae. If you think back to those phosphorus numbers we talked about earlier — 41 percent from agriculture, 4 percent from wastewater treatment? Well, 18 percent comes from urban runoff — things like driveways, rooftops and parking lots. So by slowing the flow, you’re improving water quality in more ways than one.

'The federal government walked away'

Between green infrastructure and our chat with Jeff Wennberg, it seems like we’ve kind of figured it all out, right? Separate sewage from stormwater where it makes sense, slow the stormwater down so there’s less to deal with, and keep investing in the systems we’ve got.

So if we know all that, why did more than a million gallons of untreated water overflow into Vermont’s waterways in the month of April alone? Jeff Wennberg has an answer, in the form of another question. This is how he put it back in 2015:

“There's no problem here with any of this infrastructure that can't be fixed. It can all be fixed. The question is, who is going to pay for it and how soon?”

To get some answers to that question, we meet back up with Mike at the Statehouse in Montpelier. There are only 20 minutes before lawmakers have to get to the House floor, but Mike, the superstar, has already done some scouting and found Representative David Deen. (He recognized Deen from his photo on the Legislature’s website. Mike does his homework.)

Deen is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which helps the state figure out how to spend money on environmental issues. So it seems worth asking him about what kind of funds are available.

“The federal government walked away,” is Deen’s simple answer. His thoughts on the matter are pretty political, but the gist is that Vermont can’t fund clean water projects on our own. We need help from the feds, just like in the days of the Clean Water Act — but there’s not as much money available as there used to be.

“They got more interested in fighting wars, tax breaks for really overly-rich people, and sort of left this effort and the support that came to us from the federal level in the lurch,” Deen says. “I mean, they’ve just walked on us completely, and we’re really left to our own devices.”

That doesn’t mean the state is giving up, though. Deen says the his committee made changes to a fund that helps fund local environmental projects. It’s called the Environmental Revolving Loan Fund.

“The best bang for the buck in terms of reducing nutrient loading and even E. coli levels ... has nothing to do with what we’ve been talking about so far.” — Rep. David Deen, House Natural Resources Committee chairman

“We’ve now included CSOs,” Deen says. “So they are now an eligible activity through that fund.”

That means communities can use the fund to get loans for projects like that combined sewer separation Jeff Wennberg told us about in Rutland. But Deen says that’s not the silver bullet, either.

“So, we’ve increased the amount of resources available. Is it catching up with the problem? No. I mean, the problem is still ahead of us. But we have directed additional resources to try and deal with it,” he says.

There are other sources of money, too. A 2015 state law known as the “Vermont Clean Water Act” created another fund completely dedicated to cleaning up Vermont waterways.

So, again, why isn’t Deen’s Natural Resources Committee throwing money at the sewer overflow issue?

“What we’re looking — How do I say this?” Deen says, pausing for a moment. “The best bang for the buck in terms of reducing nutrient loading and even E. coli levels, is non-point-source pollution.”

Non-point-source pollution is all the water pollution that isn’t flowing out of a pipe. This isn’t the water coming from sewage overflows, as Deen explains: “This is water running off of the land, running off of agricultural fields, running off of stock yards, running off of parking lots and buildings and roads and whatever.”

In simple terms, David Deen says the best value the state can get in terms of cleaning up water pollution “has nothing to do with what we’ve been talking about so far.”

And if you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. Remember, sewage makes up less than 4 percent of the phosphorus problem in Lake Champlain, and “phosphorus” is pretty much synonymous with “water pollution” among Vermont’s policy makers. So of course most of the money is going to go to preventing the 96 percent of pollution that isn’t sewage.

Deen also gets that policy decisions in the past are the reason we’re dealing with sewage overflows in the present.

“The system was designed to give us the results that we have right now,” he says. “This is not a failure of someone or some institution or whatever, to lead us to the combined sewer overflow problem that we have. The systems were designed to do exactly that, and now we’ve got to redesign and rebuild them, along with dealing with the aged infrastructure.”

"When those systems were designed and put in place, it was right. And that's what we did. And we were wrong." — Rep. David Deen

Deen is signed up for automated alerts from the Agency of Natural Resources, so he gets an email every time there’s an overflow. Those notifications are handy if you’re about to go swimming or fishing. But why is David Deen signed up for them, sitting in the Statehouse all day?

His answer was surprisingly philosophical:

“It reminds me that no matter how right you think you are, you may not be right. There may be something out there that you’re not anticipating,” he says. “It’s what gives me the trust I have in the committee process, because you in fact have so many different points of view. In terms of the legislative process, you have 150 points of view that are taken. And you might not be right, no matter how right you think you are, you might not be right. Because when those systems were designed and put in place, it was right. And that’s what we did. And we were wrong. OK, now we go back and try and fix it. So what I’m reminded of is: Don’t be too sure. Listen to other people.”

Wise words to live by, whether you’re talking about sewage or pretty much anything else.

What Deen said will be worth keeping in mind as Vermont tries to solve its water quality problems. Because the answer to Mike’s question is very complicated. And there is really no easy fix.

Taylor is signed up for those overflow alerts, too, and right before meeting Deen at the Statehouse, a notification came in: Rutland had had an overflow.

Thank you to Mike Brown for being a champion question-asker and joining us for every single interview! You made this episode so much better.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Journalism Fund, and from VPR members. If you like this show, consider becoming one.

Our editor is Lynne McCrea, and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music in this episode was used under a Creative Commons license:

Music selection this month was by Liam Elder-Connors, and we had engineering support from Chris Albertine. 

Links we mentioned in the show:

Clarification 12:23 p.m. 5/17/17 This post has been updated to note that the Lake Champlain Basin Program is federally funded, and to clarify the relationship between CSOs and beach closures.