Plentiful water in East Thetford, but do they drink it?

Chip Hobson: Once the upgrades and improvements are complete, the town and residents of East Thetford should welcome new opportunities to utilize this precious commodity/..

Written by Chip Hobson

The East Thetford Water Company, Inc. was organized in 1961 in response to the need for a better water supply than was available by drilling private wells. Like in many locations in Vermont, iron and manganese occur naturally in groundwater and wells, and many wells within the village were found to have unacceptable amounts of such contaminants. Although those metals are not typically considered a health hazard, they tend to stain laundry and plumbing components and often impart an offensive taste and appearance to the water.

Rights were obtained to the water available from a natural spring located along Route 113, and the members agreed to install a pipeline from the spring to the members’ residences and businesses within the village. To pay for the pipeline, sixteen founding members each contributed $375 to form the non-profit company. Financial records and meeting notes from those early years mention the slow growth of the company as new members and connections were added to the original system and suggest that operating costs were not significant or burdensome, with annual costs of around $50 per connection and some 35 to 40 connections. ETWC’s members had assembled a simple and cost-effective system that provided good-tasting and reliable water to its members until the 1980s, when sodium chloride — better known as “road salt” — contaminated the natural spring.

Wheeler Spring, the original water source for ETWC

Around the same time, salt contamination was discovered in several residential wells along Route 113 and on Cadwell Road near the VT Agency of Transportation’s garage that is located on the south side of Route 113 above the village.

VT AOT Garage along Route 113

The State of Vermont, without claiming responsibility for the contamination, agreed to install a deep well and a pipeline to deliver water to the residences above the village and to the members of ETWC within East Thetford village. A site for the new well was purchased from Vaughn Farms and is located on a hill above the farm. Water from the well is pumped into a concrete storage tank and then flows by gravity through an underground pipe that is buried alongside Asa Burton Road and Route 113. Along the way, the pipeline also provides water to the affected residences along Rt 113 and Cadwell Road before it continues down the hill where it reaches the village and the company’s network of underground distribution pipes.

In 1988, ownership of the property and the new well was transferred to the water company from the state, and a new era for East Thetford Water Company began. Almost immediately after accepting the new water supply system, the company discovered that air was getting trapped in a section of the new piping at a low point or “sag” in the pipe near the top of the line. This trapped air often disrupts the gravity-fed supply from the storage tank and blocks water from flowing, a fundamental problem which continues to hamper operation and maintenance and causes periodic service disruptions and diminished water quality.

As early as 1991, claims were made that, during installation of the pipeline, the route had been altered from the original design to avoid a section of ledge which would have required blasting to make way for the pipe. Unfortunately the alternate route cut through a swampy area and, supposedly soon after completion, the line settled, creating the sag. The state determined that any problems with the system were not their concern, and the water company chose not to spend the considerable amount of money that would have been needed to excavate and reconfigure the pipeline. 

From its beginning, like the other community water systems in Thetford, ETWC has relied upon volunteers to run the company, with a system operator responsible for operation, maintenance, and water quality monitoring and reporting. Starting in the 1980s, the state began increasing their oversight of small water companies such as ETWC, with the implementation of additional water quality monitoring and reporting requirements. The additional regulations and compliance requirements have, of course, led to increasing operational costs to be paid by the members of the company, and new regulations continue to be issued by the state and federal agencies as new hazards and risks are identified, such as the rather recent realization of the risks associated with so-called forever chemicals including PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.  

Despite the rising costs and the growing number of regulations to comply with, the company continued to run smoothly until 2015 when the capacity of the well dropped dramatically, causing the pump to run dry on occasion. A well-drilling company was hired to hydraulically fracture the bedrock, which increased the yield a little but not enough to satisfy the state regulators, and it was determined by the state that ETWC should probably replace the failing well because they were concerned about not having sufficient capacity to meet the existing and future needs of the members.

The state agreed to loan money to ETWC to enable the company to hire an engineering firm to conduct a preliminary engineering report. The major recommendations from the report included replacing the failing well with a new well – as close as possible to the existing well to make it feasible to connect to the existing storage tank and piping system – and the repair and replacement as needed of portions of the underground distribution system, which had been failing and causing expensive and untimely repairs.

The state, through the Vermont Economic Development Authority, subsequently provided an additional loan to the company to pay for the drilling of a replacement well. The new well was drilled in the fall of 2019, and work to connect to the system was then paused for that winter and to allow the consultants and state regulators to test the quality and flow rate of the new source in advance of issuing an operating permit to use the new well. Unfortunately, elevated levels of iron and manganese were discovered in the new well, which compelled the state to require the addition of a water treatment system that should reduce the amounts of those metals to the state-approved limits. The state offered to loan ETWC additional funds to design and install a treatment system, and then the Covid-19 pandemic struck. 

Meanwhile, the original well, which had been limping along for years while the replacement was being developed, suddenly and totally failed. This was a dire situation because there was no surplus in the water company’s budget to complete the connection of the new well to the storage tank, and additional funding from the state was not available during the near-total shutdown of government services during the first year of the pandemic.

New well drilled in 2019

Upon the failure of the original well, with the approval of the state and a requirement to issue a boil water notice, the water company resorted to drawing water from the spring along Route 113, the original source of water for the village members. The other users located above the village near the state’s AOT garage could not get water from the spring, because there is no means for pumping water uphill to Cadwell Road and beyond from the village. Instead, the water company had no option other than hauling water up to the storage tank on Vaughn Farms, so it could then flow by gravity to the affected homes. The water had to be hauled from the closest state-certified source which was in Stockbridge, VT, some forty miles away, at an exorbitant cost because the transport trucks could deliver only 1100 gallons each trip. These additional emergency expenses quickly drained the company’s available cash, and additional funds from the state were not available soon enough to help the situation. That is when a small group of volunteers showed up to help.

Member Dan Grilli insulating the pipe

One generous member volunteered to dig the trench needed to bury the new connections to the pumphouse from the new well and to complete the grading and backfilling of the site. Led by the stalwart wizard Chris Hebb, ETWC's system operator, other volunteers pitched in to help complete the installation, demolition, and reassembly of the piping. Another group of volunteers agreed to collect data around the clock during the required 72-hour duration “draw-down testing” needed to demonstrate that the new well would not affect neighboring wells. And on August 14, 2020, the new source was tied into the system during the midst of the pandemic.

We have water!

The state subsequently determined that the piping route chosen by volunteers to connect the new well to the pumphouse did not follow the approved design and had resulted in the disturbance of about two hundred square feet of wetland, and thus was in violation. The water company had to pay $2,500 for a wetland “permit” to attain compliance with the requirements, certainly a small price compared to the money already spent hauling water across the state and less than the likely costs associated with busting through the ledge that was encountered in the path of the approved design.

The state of Vermont provides considerable financial and technical support to help improve the quality and reliability of the state’s myriad small water systems like East Thetford’s; however, their requirements place a considerable burden upon the volunteer organizations which seek assistance from the state. And, like many businesses in Vermont and across the country, it seems the state has struggled to hire and retain an experienced workforce, which sometimes results in disruptions and delays of projects, including ETWC’s ongoing efforts to complete the new water treatment system.

For example, the need for a new treatment system was identified in 2019 shortly after the new well was drilled and evaluated, and the state directed ETWC and its consultants to proceed with the addition of a filtration system, while assuring the company that funding would be made available. However, it took about 3 years to obtain the required funding authorizations and to restart the design efforts before the company was able to solicit a request for quotation to hire a contractor to procure, install, and commission the new equipment. Late last year the wheels of progress began turning once again, and the water company and the state finalized the updated loan agreement, and funds began flowing to enable the company to proceed.

ETWC and their consulting engineer would like very much to hire a contractor and begin the final phase of the project without delay, but qualified contractors have been hard to locate as many continue to repair infrastructure damaged during the widespread flooding last July. In the meantime, the consultant will incorporate the state’s latest additions to the system design requirements and seek competitive price and schedule quotes, even if the project cannot be completed before next year.

The overall cost for the new well and treatment system is estimated at $319,000, and the state and VEDA have agreed to waive 75 percent of the final amount, with the remaining 25 percent to be repaid by ETWC over a 29-year term at an interest rate of zero percent. Thus far, the new well and testing of the water has comprised approximately one-half of the incurred project costs, with engineering, legal fees, and permitting making up the other half. The expense to the water company to repay the loan is expected to be around $2,700 a year, which would result in an increase of about 10 percent to the current overall budget.

For a company with only nineteen members and around thirty-four connections, this project and the associated costs present both an incredible opportunity to improve the quality and reliability of the system while adding a sometimes-daunting challenge to the membership to retain members, due to the ever-increasing costs of owning and operating the water system. But once the upgrades and improvements are complete, the town and residents of East Thetford should welcome new opportunities to utilize this precious commodity, and we will enjoy the clean and delicious water that is soon to flow from our faucets.

Note: The writer is a member and former treasurer of East Thetford Water Company and is currently serving as the owner’s representative for the well and treatment system.

Subscribe to Sidenote

Sign up now to get the latest stories right in your inbox.