David K. Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said much of Vermont’s infrastructure is aging and in need of repair. “Anecdotally, my understanding is that it’s a fairly common need being an east coast state,” he said.
In Bennington, town officials are looking to begin addressing a water system that dates back to the late 1800s. The town’s water resources superintendent has estimated that about 60 percent, or about 40 miles, of the town’s water mains need to be replaced. The cost is expected to be about $40 million.
Most water systems throughout the state are probably not a safety issue, however, according to Mears. “Just by virtue of being old, no,” he said. “Just the fact that it’s old doesn’t mean it isn’t providing safe drinking water. It’s just like any other infrastructure, as the pipes wear out you have to replace them.”
Mears said the department is encouraging municipalities to plan ahead. “The fact that it’s old doesn’t mean that it’s not safe, but it may be harder to maintain,” he said.
“The longer you wait to replace aging infrastructure like this, the more expensive it gets. One of the things we tell communities to do is plan ahead … and have a strategy and a plan so that they don’t have to do it all at once and they don’t have to do it on an emergency basis.”
Creating a long-term upgrade plan requires professional staff time, and voters must be convinced to back additional spending, Mears said.
“It’s even harder to persuade the town voters to pony up more money for a problem they can’t see,” he said.
The state has a revolving loan fund for drinking water systems that typically receives $9 million to $10 million annually from the federal government. The fund provides low-interest loans, or even negative-interest loans if median incomes are low enough, according to Mears.
The federal funding has been under pressure, however, as Congress looks to trim spending. The Republican-controlled House has proposed “substantial cuts,” he said.
Town Manager Stuart A. Hurd said the town recently used the loan fund to help with a $7 million upgrade to its water filtration plant. The town may seek those funds again, he said, to help replace aging water mains.
“We’re aware of that and most likely that’s where we would look as soon as we decide where to move forward, assuming the monies are still available,” he said. “Sometimes if you’re ready to go and you show a willingness to move forward and you have bond approval you can leap-frog other towns.”
Contact Neal P. Goswami at firstname.lastname@example.org