One dollar a day — less than a cup of coffee — that’s the average most Vermont households pay for safe drinking water from public water systems.

While that’s a bargain by most standards, there is wasted money involved, as many water systems have aging infrastructures that need repair. State and federal regulations require system operators to address these deficiencies and put a new emphasis on the long-term maintenance and operation of each component in their systems.

Both federal and state laws require all public water systems to adopt plans for protecting their water sources. Source protection plans identify possible contaminants within a recharge area — or source protection area — of a water source. The plans provide land use management protection techniques for the corresponding area and water source, such as purchase of development rights on land surrounding a water source and passage of local ordinances to protect water quality. Source protection plans also contain contingency procedures to follow in case of contamination. As of 2000, source protection plans safeguarded 84 percent of Vermonters served by public community water sources, up from 29 percent four years earlier.

Knowledge and public involvement are essential elements of drinking water awareness. For the Agency’s Water Supply Division, better communication with the regulated community has emerged in recent years as an important focus. The Division now distributes a quarterly newsletter, Waterline, to 2,500 Vermonters, including water system operators, town health officers, and consultants. The Division’s website provides access to drinking water regulations, program procedures, and, specifically for certified water system operators who manage public systems, certification requirements, training schedules, and educational opportunities.

The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund provides financial assistance for public water systems. In 2001, the federal government allotted $7.8 million to Vermont’s fund. The state, in turn, provided another $1.56 million. The fund supports a wide variety of activities, including public water system infrastructure improvements, source water protection, and water system management support.

The fund also provides money for engineering studies to public water systems serving fewer than 500 consumers. The program establishes a fixed fee for engineers to provide three levels of study:
1. identify technical and regulatory deficiencies;
2. determine total cost estimates for correcting deficiencies; and
3. determine sources of funding for financing improvements.

Seventy-eight small water systems were participating in the program as of late 2001.

Pinpointing the cost of protecting water quality in the natural environment is more complex as there are a variety of federal, state, and local programs involved, from the obvious, such as constructing sewage treatment plants, to the not-so-visible, such as ensuring that loggers comply with the state’s Acceptable Management Practices for Maintaining Water Quality.

The total expenditure of state, federal, and local funds for all municipal wastewater treatment facilities and equipment since 1957 is approximately $512 million. The 2001 expenditure for these facilities, including capital costs, operation, and maintenance, was $36 million.

The amount of money spent to reduce nonpoint source pollution is particularly difficult to calculate. Aside from several federal and state cost-sharing programs that target run-off from farms, two federal programs deal with nonpoint source pollution control (both named for sections of the Clean Water Act): the 604(b) “Pass-Through” program for planning and the Section 319 program for implementation. Expenditures for the two programs have topped $11 million since 1990. As one of the first states to have an EPA-approved Nonpoint Source Pollution Management Program, Vermont has competed successfully for Section 319 money. The following four projects are examples of the types of ventures funded through this grant program:

EPA has supported a water quality restoration project in the Missisquoi River watershed in Franklin County since 1994. Aside from visible degradation of the watershed, the receiving waters have suffered from increased bacteria and total phosphorus levels. The project was designed to measure the water quality effectiveness of certain agricultural management practices, including: livestock exclusion fencing, protected livestock stream crossings, establishment of riparian buffers, and bioengineering stream bank erosion controls. Preliminary results from the first year of post-treatment monitoring indicated declines of 46 percent for E. coli, 52 percent for fecal coliform, and 42 percent for total phosphorus export in the treatment watersheds. These encouraging early results suggest that practices such as fencing out livestock and stabilizing stream banks are making a real difference in water quality.

With roads so often paralleling streams and rivers, erosion control on gravel roads can have a major impact on water quality. The Vermont Better Backroads Program, begun in 1997, works with landowners and town road crews to apply common sense techniques to maintain gravel roads while protecting the environment. Information and assistance are available through publications such as the Vermont Better Backroads Manual, grants to inventory or correct road erosion problems, on-site technical assistance, workshops, and informational meetings. The program makes grants available for work on private roads as well as town roads. The Better Backroads Program is a partnership between the Vermont Local Roads Program, Vermont’s Resource Conservation and Development Councils, and the Agency of Natural Resources.

This project seeks to demonstrate, on a farm within the Lake Champlain Basin, the performance and adaptability of an electric reactor-type technology for treating dairy manure in the cold climate of northern New England. This technology is intended to separate cow manure and accelerate composting. Partners in this project include the participating farmer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Agriculture, Food & Markets, and the University of Vermont.

The purpose of this project is two-fold: to address nonpoint source pollution problems and also to provide meaningful short-term employment to high school- and college-age youth. Working in a supervised setting under the guidance of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, participants receive on-the-job training along with the opportunity to broaden their base of conservation consciousness. Corps members are assigned various in-stream, stream bank, and riparian restoration projects.

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