Turning on a faucet is, perhaps, as simple and automatic a task as can be. But where does the water come from, and how is it made clean? On Thursday, May 30, the state’s fifth annual “Water Quality Day,” Vermonters had the chance to get these answers and more on tours at 19 water, wastewater and stormwater treatment facilities around the state. In South Burlington, the Champlain Water District water treatment facility joined in, opening its doors to visitors. 

Water Quality Day began in 2014 when, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin backed the Green Mountain Water Environment Association in creating an event to acknowledge state efforts in public health and water quality control, as well as to promote the individuals who accomplish that work. Gov. Phil Scott has supported the event each year since. 

“It’s a massive infrastructure,” said Dan Hecht, executive director of the Green Mountain Water Environment Association. “Because it’s underground, because it works so well, we don’t appreciate it enough.” 

He added that allowing residents to tour facilities lets them see the technology, science and human labor that help treat Vermont’s water, firsthand. 

During the Champlain Water District water treatment facility’s open house, employees led visitors through the process of purifying water to service about 75,000 customers across the facility’s 12 water systems in Chittenden County.  

Director of Water Quality and Production Michael Barsotti shared with guests how water is pulled from a deep underwater canyon in Lake Champlain’s Shelburne Bay to the South Burlington-based facility, where it is purified and sent to 19 storage tanks across the district’s system. Champlain Water District, he said, must fulfill an average 9.5 million gallon demand for water each day.

Treatment begins with the district’s three contact adsorption clarifiers, Barsotti said. Water is pumped into the facility from Shelburne Bay and sent through the clarifiers, which remove 70 percent of natural materials found in the lake. The clarifiers employ coagulation and prefiltration to accomplish this.

Next, the water moves to the facility’s eight deep bed filters which use layers of anthracite (a clean coal), sand, garnet stone and gravel – which supports the other layers – to further capture contaminants. After this process, the water is 99.9 percent purified, Barsotti said. Further disinfection is carried out as per state and national requirements. 

The Champlain Water District water treatment facility has earned several awards for its efforts, including a 2014 accolade for “Best Tasting Water in New England” from the New England Water Works Association. In 2015 the district was honored with the American Water Works Association, “People’s Choice: Best of the Best in North America” award for the taste and quality of its water. 

This year, the facility also earned an award from the Partnership for Safe Water recognizing “Twenty Years of Water Excellence.” These achievements are a product of the tenacity of the district’s employees and the extra steps the facility takes to ensure water sent to South Burlington, Shelburne and the center’s nine other Chittenden County systems is top notch, Barsotti said. 

As Water Quality Day visitors were informed during their tour, the Champlain Water District uses several unique systems to monitor the quality of its water. 

One includes a simulation of a residential water plumbing system which facility workers pump water through to ensure lead and copper optimization. While the district’s treatment system is relatively new, the homes it services sometimes have pipes that are fused together with lead solder. Lead solder was used to connect pipes prior to 1987 and can allow lead to leach into water. The district’s residential water plumbing simulator permits water samples to sit and warm up as they would in a home, Barsotti said. A piece of 50/50 lead-tin solder rests in the tank to help test the integrity of the zinc orthophosphate that is pumped into the water to coat old pipes and prevent the solder from leaching. 

The simulator was installed about 14 years ago, according to Barsotti. And while Champlain Water District employees gleaned all the information they need from it right after its installation, they kept it up to serve as a backup for their other lead testing measures. 

“We want to test the worst-case condition for if lead would dissolve in people’s houses,” Barsotti said. “We leave it here because it’s a way for us to monitor.”

Another unique system Champlain Water District uses is a laser particle counter which examines the water for elements like silica sand, clay and plankton.

When water enters the facility, the counter detects about 3,000 particles per milliliter, Barsotti said. After filtration, it finds less than 10 particles per milliliter – on average closer to four.  

After leading Water Quality Day tours, Barsotti said he received several “thank you” messages including one from an educator at the Center for Technology Essex who had brought students there on a field trip.

Interactions like these are precisely what the Green Mountain Water Environment Association strives for with the event. According to Hecht, public education is important, especially when it comes to the nation’s massive water infrastructure. He hopes Vermonters who attended the event gained a better appreciation for the size and needs of the nation’s water infrastructure. 

“In the United States we have 1 1/4 million miles of water pipe and an equivalent amount in wastewater pipe,” Hecht said. “That’s to the moon and back to the moon again and back again and to the moon, which is a long way. It’s really worthy of awe.”

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