Sewer project gets leading man

Water district, town collaborate to lay clean water foundation

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By Jason Starr
The Colchester Sun

A series of things have to fall into place for the Town of Colchester to transform wastewater treatment in and around Malletts Bay from on-site septic systems to a sewer line into Burlington. And the project now has a chief executive officer in Bryan Osborne, a public servant adept at attracting government grants and with probably the most detailed knowledge of Colchester’s water resources after spearheading an EPA-funded study on the subject in 2012.

Osborne, Colchester’s longtime public works director, said bringing the sewer line to Malletts Bay, along with other water quality initiatives aimed at reclaiming the health of Lake Champlain, would be the most worthwhile effort of his career.

“I think it’s the most important project and work that the Town of Colchester is going to take for its future and for the future of water quality in Lake Champlain and more specifically Malletts Bay,” Town Manager Dawn Francis said at a July 14 meeting of the Colchester Selectboard. “We’ve got the right guy in charge. He’s the one who can actually deliver this project.”

Installing Osborne to take the lead was the result of a recent agreement between the town and the water district that manages residential and commercial water delivery in Malletts Bay neighborhoods. It’s an area that has “multiple failed septic systems,” according to Francis. Geography and lot size constraints make replacing failed systems difficult or impossible. The failed systems contribute to bacteria loading and unhealthy water in Malletts Bay. Already this summer, Bayside Beach has been closed to swimming four times due to unsafe bacteria levels.

The water district has studied the costs and feasibility of constructing a sewer line in the area. Preliminary plans call for a pipe to begin at Goodsell Point, continue along East and West Lakeshore drives, Prim Road and Heineberg Drive, and end at Burlington’s wastewater treatment facility on North Avenue.

Stormwater drainage in the area is also inadequate and will be addressed as part of the sewer project, Francis said. A joint management team is envisioned to manage funding and construction consisting of water district board members and selectboard members. If constructed, the water district would own and operate the sewer line, charging rate-payers to help pay off the project’s debt. A memorandum of understanding will be needed to outline the town and water district’s relationship.

“It’s a partnership,” said selectboard member Marc Landry. “Their contributions have been in the area of studies. Our contributions will be in the area of staff.”

Officials are unwilling to hazard a guess on the cost of the project, which would need approval from Colchester voters to move forward. State and federal grants will be “key to keeping this project afloat,” Francis said. The town has submitted an application for a $6.5 million pollution abatement grant from the state of Vermont for the project.

The sewer line is also likely to require an estimate $5 million upgrade to Burlington’s North Avenue wastewater treatment facility. The scope of that upgrade, and the amount of Colchester’s wastewater the facility can take, will be the subject of future discussions with the city.

“The relationship, along with the technical and financial issues, with the city of Burlington is extremely complex and fragile. A concentrated effort is needed to navigate through the political, technical, and financial challenges related to this relationship,” Francis wrote in a July 15 memo to the selectboard.

According to the memo, informal discussions with Burlington officials indicate the city is willing to take on 300,000 gallons of wastewater from Colchester per day. Roughly 70 percent of that capacity would be used to serve existing homes and businesses in the Malletts Bay area, and 30 percent would be available for future growth. Osborne said more capacity can be negotiated with Burlington, altering that ratio closer to 50-50.

“I think we can free up capacity for development,” he said. “(Burlington) wants to sell the capacity. They are willing to do that provided their rate-payers are insulated from any additional cost.”

Francis said any new development in Malletts Bay that the sewer line spurs would be in keeping with what residents have envisioned for the area in recent public planning events. The Planning Commission is working to align land use regulations with the vision gathered at the events.

“Colchester residents want low-intensity development in the bay,” Francis said. “They want to keep the bay’s character and existing settlement pattern. We’re not looking for a lot of high-intensity growth in this area as a result of bringing in sewers.”