As well peters out, East Thetford residents, businesses left high and dry

  • Chris Hebb, system operator for the East Thetford Water Co., measures the depth of water in a reservoir fed by a well that in recent weeks has stopped producing enough water for its 42 connections in East Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2019. The well continues to serve seven of the nearest connections, while about 35 homes and businesses closer to the village center have been switched to water from a spring that preceded the well. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bev Hodgdon fills a glass of drinking water for a customer at Isabell's Cafe from one of about six gallons she brought from home while homes and businesses in East Thetford, Vt., are under a boil water order Thursday, March 14, 2019. The restaurant has been served for about ten days by a spring that predates the 30-year-old well that is no longer producing enough water to serve the village. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mark Alden, of Brentwood, N.H., right, takes a last sip of water as Matthew Gilchrist, settles the bill before leaving Isabell's Cafe in East Thetford, Vt., Thursday, March 14, 2019. The restaurant has been under a boil water order for about ten days and owner Bev Hodgdon is serving water from her own home to customers. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • System operator Chris Hebb uses a colorimeter to measure the amount of chlorine in a sample of water from the East Thetford Water Co. well at a roadside access point in East Thetford, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2019. Water production from the 30-year-old well slowed last week, leaving some of those it served without water for days. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Saturday, March 16, 2019

EAST THETFORD — Patricia Dewey first noticed there was a problem when she went to the kitchen to make her morning coffee and only a trickle came out of the kitchen faucet.

Christine Tullgren, who operates a day care business, received urgent text messages from her staff.

Jesse Pacht, the maintenance manager at Long Wind Farm, found he could barely wet his toothbrush at the bathroom sink.

And Chip Hobson, the only person people knew to contact, discovered he had a crisis on his hands when he opened his inbox and saw a stack of worried and angry emails waiting for him.

So began Monday, Feb. 25, in East Thetford, where village residents and businesses found out they were basically without water.

Almost three weeks later, several dozen people and a handful of businesses are depending on an emergency system for their water supply; stocking up on bottled water for drinking, boiling water; driving out of town to laundromats to wash clothes; and, at Little Feet Children’s Center, periodically wiping the kids’ hands with baby towelettes because toddlers and tykes are prone to stick fingers in their mouths.

It could be months before life in East Thetford returns to normal.

“There’s nothing like having no water for a week to get people’s attention,” said Hobson, a partner in Turbo Solutions Engineering, a small turbomachine engineering firm that has its offices in a former residence between Isabell’s Cafe and Wells River Savings Bank in East Thetford. “For some people on the system, this has been a real disaster.”

The “system” is the East Thetford Water Co., a nonprofit that supplies water to 42 connections along Route 113 and in the village center along Route 5. It was originally built in 1961 running off a spring, but in 1989, after tests revealed salt contamination in the spring, a well was drilled further uphill, piping water into a reservoir in the woods near Asa Burton Road which then flowed downhill to nearby residents and businesses.

When it was built, the 15,000-gallon well would pump 60 gallons a minute into the reservoir, but three weeks ago had dropped to just 4 gallons per minute.

But beginning on Sunday, Feb. 24, some residents on the line began to notice a sharp drop in water pressure, and it became a trickle the following day. Without water, some businesses in the village couldn’t operate.

“I closed for two days,” said Tullgren, the owner of Little Feet Children’s Center, which provides 20 families with child care. That created a hardship for the working parents who had to scramble to find alternate care for their kids on a few hours’ notice, Tullgren said.

“As if finding day care in Vermont isn’t hard enough,” she noted.

At Isabell’s Cafe, owner Bev Hodgdon had to close her cozy neighborhood breakfast and lunch nook on Route 5 for a day and a half while the water company arranged for an emergency backup system to be activated after the well up the hill mysteriously had nearly ceased pumping water into the adjacent reservoir. Once the reservoir was drawn down, there was no water to serve connections down the line.

Why the water company’s well failed no one yet knows, Hobson said. Maybe it collapsed, or silt built up in the fissures, or the aquifer has been exhausted. The water company will first try to drill deeper at the current well site — it’s currently 400 feet deep and may have to go another 500 feet down, Hobson said — but if that doesn’t yield anything it they will have to drill a new well somewhere else.

Because the well feeding the reservoir is down to 3 or 4 gallons an hour, said Chris Hebb, a certified public system operator who works for East Thetford Water Co. and other small water companies in the area, “we’re looking at drilling another well.”

“I would say the capacity is going down in a big way,” he dryly observed.

In the interim, in order to get water flowing again to customers, the water company tapped Wheeler Spring, which had been the source of the village’s water supply until the late 1980s when salt contamination shut it down.

Hebb, with volunteers, spent several 16-hour days in below-freezing February temperatures using a professional-grade metal detector to comb the 2-foot-deep snow in fields along Route 113 for various shut-off valves, looking to prevent the gravity-pulled water from the reservoir from flowing through the main pipeline down to the village.

Seven users are far enough up the hill to continue getting their water from the reservoir, but the majority of the connections down the line are now drawing their water from the old spring.

Nonetheless, Hebb had two 1,100-gallon tanker truckloads of water shipped in from Stockbridge, Vt., to replenish the reservoir to ensure an adequate temporary supply of water to those users.

But users still getting their water from the reservoir as well as the majority of people and businesses farther down the line being supplied by the old spring have been advised to boil the water for uses other than washing dishes, cleaning or showering.

That’s created headaches for the likes of Isabell’s and Little Feet Children’s Center, which depend on uncontaminated water.

Hodgdon said she herself is carting “6 or 7” gallons of water from home every morning to the cafe for serving customers.

“I’m still doing that even if we go off the boil-water notice,” she said.

Tullgren said her day care center made do by disconnecting from the water system and reconnecting to a well she has on the property. But that required her to fork out an unexpected $1,600 to buy a new pump.

“We’re using the well water for dishwashing and washing hands, but we’re still using baby wipes for extra precaution” until she gets back the well water testing results.

Tullgren said she switched from her well and plugged into the water system a couple years ago when she built an addition in her building.

“Had they told me the state the water company was in, I would never have hooked in,” he said.

Long Wind Farm, renowned for its organic tomatoes and located off Route 113 along the Connecticut River, wasn’t affected by the water company’s well failure because the farm has its own drilled wells on-site.

But Pacht said he lives near the river, and when he discovered he didn’t have running water that Monday morning, he knew the village was facing a big problem.

“We’re one of the last houses on the system,” he said. “If we don’t have water, no one has water.”

Hobson, of Turbo Solutions Engineering, is treasurer of the East Thetford Water Co. He said the nonprofit, which is run by volunteers, had been without a president since 2017. He said the lack of volunteers is not unusual with small water companies around the state that may have only a handful of customers.

“People don’t know where the water is coming from until it stops running,” he said. “We all suffer from a lack of member participation.”

But the water crisis has galvanized the East Thetford community, he said.

The well was already demonstrating diminished capacity several years ago and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation advised the water company to hire a water engineering consultant to undertake an assessment of the well. That was completed in 2016, Hobson said, but the well’s output had already been diminishing for 10 years.

The well had been “hydro-fracked” in 2015, Hobson said, but “it didn’t improve the flow at all.”

Hobson said Otter Creek Engineering, of East Middlebury, Vt., estimates the cost of drilling for deeper well capacity — probably only a temporary fix — on top of permitting and running through the state’s regulatory gamut, will cost about $50,000 — money East Thetford Water Co. will have to borrow.

But that’s just for starters. The cost to “overhaul the entire system,” according to Hobson, would be about $1 million. That money would have to be borrowed, too, Hobson said, most likely from the Vermont Economic Development Authority, which had earlier placed it on the “project priority list.”

On March 6, the water company held its first public meeting since 2017 at Isabell’s. About 20 people showed up and, in addition to briefing those present on the history of the village’s water system and what needed to be done, two East Thetford residents — Patricia Dewey and Danielle Yoder — volunteered to be co-presidents, and a new board was elected.

It’s taken a crisis to get residents’ attention, but “we now have a level of momentum and enthusiasm that had been lacking,” Hobson said.

No food was served during the 90-minute meeting at Isabell’s Cafe, but Hodgdon made sure there were refreshments on hand — plenty of water.

John Lippman can be reached at jippman@vnews.com.


Chip Hobson is a partner in Turbo Solutions Engineering in East Thetford. His first name was  incorrect in an earlier version of this story.