Between major breaks and runoff pollution, local water workers keep systems running smoothly

Jeffersonville water operator Trevor Welch collects a water sample during his daily rounds. For every water system in the state, a certified operator does the daily detective work—roadside monitoring, testing, and signing off—necessary to maintain local water safety and headlines about burst pipes and pollution from runoff to a minimum. Photo by Brendan Reese/Community Press Service

Brendan Reese is a journalist with Community News Service, a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Documentary Reporting and Storytelling Program.

JEFFERSONVILLE — Is your water safe? Most likely.

You can check your city’s Consumer Confidence Report or the state’s Testing and Compliance Database.

Have children? Another system shows the results of lead tests in schools and daycares.

Jeffersonville water operator Trevor Welch conducts water quality testing at a local facility. Photo by Brendan Reese/Community Press Service

Behind that data, for every water supply system in the state, a certified operator does the daily detective work — roadside monitoring, testing and approval — necessary to maintain local water safety and headlines on burst pipes and runoff pollution to a minimum.

It pays to track down anything out of the ordinary in this field of work. City water operators often spend their days driving around in a van on the prowl. Just as often, their efforts go unnoticed.

But ride one, and you can learn a lot.

Eagle Eye leads to a boiled water advisory

Boil your water, Jeffersonville officials told the village’s roughly 700 residents in mid-March. What had started as a small leak of 5 gallons per minute, enough to maybe splash in your face, had become a 3/4 inch hole gushing water.

Village water operator Trevor Welch could tell something was wrong weeks before he had to shut down the section of pipe and fix the break.

“In the middle of someone’s driveway, at a place I pass every day, I noticed a patch of ice that was slowly starting to form,” said Welch, who has served in the role for nearly seven years. year. “It was in the middle of winter. I’ve been watching it for a few weeks, and it’s gaining momentum.

Boiled water advisories are common in Vermont, said Jeff Girard, compliance supervisor for the state’s Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division. One of the most common reasons for advisories are water main leaks that cause pressure loss, like the one in Jeffersonville, he said.

When a water main loses pressure, groundwater can seep through pinholes and potentially expose people’s drinking water to harmful bacteria. Boiled water advisories are also issued if a water sample shows contaminant levels above regulatory limits, a dangerous situation.

A water tank in Jeffersonville, where local water operator Trevor Welch does daily detective work to keep people’s drinking water safe. Photo by Brendan Reese/Community Press Service

“Systems with older infrastructure are more likely to encounter the problem of water main breaks,” Girard said.

Jefforsonville’s water system was established in 1914. Some of those original pipes are still in use, though the system underwent a major upgrade in the 1980s. Welch said engineers told him that the mountain water and soil around Smugglers Notch had helped preserve the pipes. He tends to be modest about his own contribution to keeping the system together.

Drive around Jeffersonville

On a sunny spring day in the first week of May, Welch set out to make his daily rounds at the water treatment building near the two springs that supply Jeffersonville’s water.

Outside the brown shed-sized building, Welch took a sample of water from a nearby tap. Then he opened a concrete cover and showed the water pipe below. Two chemicals – caustic (to control pH) and chlorine – are stored in the water treatment building and injected directly into the mainline before the water descends to the village.

Welch walked to the building with his water sample and began his tests.

“0.67,” he said. “That’s a good amount of chlorine. The PH is up around 9, which is a bit high.

In addition to temperature, pH and chlorine readings are something he logs daily to comply with state requirements. He also likes to take note of the overall system pressure and demand.

“Right now we’re processing 38 gallons per minute,” he said. “I like to keep track of that because if we had a big leak down the mountain, we would jump up to 60 gallons per minute as the system tries to catch up.”

It’s a game of noticing outliers.

State regulations reinforce boots on the ground

To be sure, state regulators aren’t content to abandon drinking water safety to the luck of having an eagle-eyed Trevor Welch on the front lines of every city’s water system. The state’s compliance infrastructure rivals the physical infrastructure of pipes and tanks you would find powering any water system.

Along with reports and public databases, training and testing are critical to the water compliance landscape.

Jeffersonville water operator Trevor Welch conducts water quality testing at a local facility. Photo by Brendan Reese/Community Press Service

Providing training to certified water operators like Welch is the cornerstone of this compliance system.

“Every water system must have a certified operator,” said Girard, the state compliance officer.

To have Welch’s job – a Class 3 certified operator (one of five designations) – one must pass an exam and have more than a year of work experience under another certified operator to obtain a license. Renewals and hours of continuing education are required to maintain it.

Testing guidelines are another pillar of compliance.

Every public water system needs a state-approved monitoring schedule that outlines what needs to be tested and when, based on system size, complexity, and past violations. The pillars include monthly testing for total coliform bacteria and E. coli for some 90 contaminants, according to state rules.

Most contaminants go through a layered testing regime where more regular monitoring at first results in testing intervals of three, six and nine years if all looks good. Lead and copper have their own guidelines which follow a similar system, as do radioactive materials.

“People take water…for granted”

Once Welch was done with his test trip that day, he mapped out the rest of his schedule: a few more samples and a few more adjustments if needed, possibly a curb stop to make water level adjustments. from a customer, maybe a hydrant adjustment, a visit to help fix a measurement problem.

What would he do if he wanted to know if a city’s drinking water was safe?

“Go talk to the operator,” Welch said. “You can tell if someone is on top of things.”

“It’s rare that people contact me. In general, people take water and wastewater infrastructure for granted. It’s just human nature,” he said.

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