By ANDY KIRKALDY
PANTON — The Vergennes-Panton Water District board has in hand a report saying that its 37-year-old Panton plant needs at least $5.2 million of repairs and upgrades, and estimates that paying off a bond to fund that work could mean a hike of $306 a year for a typical residential customer.
But board members and interim district manager Matt Jerry, a Panton resident who also sits on the board, are not rushing into a bond.
With talk in Washington, D.C., that some of the roughly $800 billion economic stimulus package being considered in Congress will be devoted to local water projects, Vergennes-Panton Water District officials hope that grants can make a big dent in the cost of upgrading the Arnold Bay plant.
“We’re not going to leap ahead by any means. We’re going to wait and see what might be available for grants,” Jerry said. “Within two months ... we’ll know what the stimulus package will entail.”
There will be two possible sources of grants: The Vermont Department of Economic Conservation’s Water Supply Division, and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Agency. Jerry said the proverbial word on the street is that the USDA’s Vermont money will triple, for example.
Jerry said board members also want to hear from customers. In bills sent out earlier this month, the district also included flyers that outlined the problems at the plant, which processes and filters surface water from Lake Champlain.
“They are cautiously waiting ... to see what we get for feedback from our flyers,” he said.
Jerry wants to be absolutely clear on one point: He said there is no problem with the water the district is providing its customers in Vergennes and Panton.
“We are still providing safe, clean, drinkable, excellent water. There should be no concern about our quality,” he said. “There is concern with how long our existing system, which is 37 years old, will continue to provide our expected excellent water.”
The board first started looking into the state of the plant more than a year ago when it asked for bids to evaluate the facility. In March 2008, the board accepted a proposal from Otter Creek Engineering of Middlebury, which submitted its preliminary findings and cost estimates (of $5.2 million) in November.
“The study found our concerns were not unfounded,” Jerry said.
The most important elements needing work are the plant’s two large, round filters, each of which Jerry described “as big as a small two-car garage.” They must be replaced while keeping the plant on line and providing water.
“The filters are the weak link in our system. They’re functioning well, but they’re showing signs of age. There’s rust and deterioration,” he said. “They should be replaced while keeping the existing system functioning.”
Other work needed includes:
• Replacing or upgrading the pumps that push water to the second-story filters through 16-inch pipes.
• Upgrading the control system.
• Improving the plant’s heating and air-handling systems and insulation. Jerry said there is now no dehumidification to prevent further rust and “essentially no” insulation.
• Upgrading the safety of the plant’s elevator.
• Replacing the plant’s 30-year-old steel water tank.
• Improving its storage for treatment chemicals, and the equipment used to treat the water with the chemicals.
• Upgrading the plant’s electrical system.
The flyer sent out to customers notes that “spot improvements” could be made to address the most pressing needs, but that the board recommends “a holistic facility upgrade” that would “prepare the facility for the next 30 to 40 years.”
It also states that final cost and user rates will not be known without “further consideration of project scope and additional engineering design.”
Jerry and the board are reviewing the study findings with regulators, and will pursue all grant possibilities before setting a date for a vote. Then, as the flyer concludes, “Upon completion of design, cost estimating, confirmation of available funding, the board will hold informational meetings and have a bond vote.”
By warm weather, Jerry said water district customers can probably expect to see meeting and vote notices.
“I would think by summertime we easily should be able to have some sort of public informational meeting,” he said.