Toward a Sustainable Water Supply for Woodstock

Michael J. Caduto

(This is the fourth in a series of articles looking at the nature and history of the Ottauquechee River and human impacts on the watershed.)

The Woodstock Aqueduct Company employs fourteen solar trackers that produce 60kW of renewable electricity to draw water from the aquifer associated with the Gulf Stream along Route 12. The pump house can be seen on the left. Photo by Michael J. Caduto

On July 16, 2018, a building located at 47-55 Central Street in Woodstock was destroyed by fire. The first floor housed a popular local restaurant, Pi Brick Oven Trattoria, and the second floor was home to the offices of the Vermont Standard. Three apartments and a local business, the Collective Art Gallery, were also located in the building. (The Standard had moved to this
location after its previous offices were destroyed by flooding during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.)

By chance, I was making a run to the Post Office, which is located across from where the fire was raging. While witnessing this heart-rending event, and the determined, heroic efforts of emergency responders to extinguish the blaze, I turned to find Eric Wegner standing next to me, who was at that time the Vice President of the Woodstock Aqueduct Company (WAC).

“This is such a tragedy,” I said.

“Yes, and I hope they get it under control soon,” Wegner replied, “because I’m watching the levels in our tank dropping fast. I don’t know what we would do if there was a larger fire in the Village, or more than one fire at the same time.”

Fast forward to the present time. When considering this issue of water supply, Jireh Billings, who serves as President of the Woodstock Aqueduct Company, said, “We would have to reconnect the surface water system which would put the system on DO NOT DRINK because we do not have the right treatment facility for our surface water supply. Someday we hope to rebuild the Cox Dam and build a treatment facility for redundancy.”

Another strain to Woodstock’s water supply was revealed in July 10-11, 2023, when a catastrophic storm, which the National Weather Service named the Great Vermont Flood of 2023, dropped up to nine inches of rain in some locales and caused flood damage that rivaled that of 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene. In the 2023 flood in Woodstock, two main water supply lines broke, one under the river by the Route 12 iron bridge and one going from Billings Farm field under the river to the field by the wastewater treatment plant. These pipes connect the Village to the Woodstock Aqueduct Company’s wells north of town. The system was unable to operate because the 8-inch lines were both broken in the river. As a result of the two breaks, the system had dewatered. Residents had no water to drink until these two lines could be isolated from the system. Once that was done, service was restored on July 20.

Food, water, clothing, shelter and energy are among the most basic human needs. Providing for these essentials is at the heart of building a community that is sustainable and resilient. The 2023 flood began an intense process of seeking long-term solutions for the Woodstock Aqueduct Company water system and other infrastructure in the town.

There is no problem with the aquifer that provides water for the Village, according to Billings, who represents the fourth generation of his family to direct the Woodstock Aqueduct Company, which was established in 1880. “The aquifer itself is terrific and groundwater is better than surface water for providing clean water that’s high quality and free of contaminants,” said Billings. “In 1880 several Woodstock families including, my Great-grandfather and his brother, tried to convince the Town that it was time to build a public water system. When the town would not build the system this group of people started a private
Company which we still have. I have great hope that the voters of Woodstock will see the wisdom in the Town taking over and controlling the water system as most towns in Vermont do.”

The WAC wells, and their associated array of solar panels, are located about a mile north of Woodstock Village along Route 12 near the intersection with Stimets Road, and where a sharp bend in the Gulf Stream cuts through the valley before entering Barnard Brook. This water supply services 770 users in town, including schools, municipal buildings and nearly 100 fire hydrants. In case of a major fire, however, the water pressure with the current system strains to meet demand at many of the fire hydrants in town while also supplying water for general potable water purposes. Said Billings, “When the wells aren’t running and hydrants are open, high elevation areas in the Village can’t be kept above 20 psi, which violates the Water Supply Rule.”

According to Kevin Geiger, Chief Planner for the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, “The goals for any public water supply should be clean, plentiful and affordable water. The specific goal in our current Regional Plan is that ‘Municipal water and wastewater systems are secure, financially sustainable, well-maintained and energy efficient.’ Having such a supply then supports other goals, especially the ability of a town to have a compact center, since such a level of development needs a water supply. If Woodstock wants a healthy village center it needs to be able to offer additional supply.”

“The biggest challenge is increasing the amount of waterflow into the area,” said Woodstock’s Municipal Manager, Eric Duffy. “A system that provides enough water for the fire hydrants, businesses and residents will also increase the ability for economic development. There are infrastructure needs that, if done, would increase the capacity of Woodstock’s water supply.”

To this end, a public meeting was held in August 2023. The Woodstock Select Board and Village Trustees formed the Woodstock Water Working Group to study all aspects of the current system and make recommendations. This group recommended that the Town take over the system.

Billings stated that “The board and stockholders of the Woodstock Aqueduct Company approved selling the Company and its land to the Town as long as the Vondell land is protected and conserved. The WAC wants to include the land to protect the reservoirs and to serve as a recreational area or park. The Company is working with The Vermont Land Trust and The
Woodstock Area Mountain Bike Association to protect the land for public use. This will also keep the watershed intact, including the Vondell Land. We need to protect the system for the future and from potential pollution.”

The old reservoir system, which stores 42 million gallons, is still connected but valved off from the currently used groundwater supply system. “The Town needs to keep the surface water system as a backup water supply,” said Billings. “To use this water for public potable water will require a means for treating the surface water at Cox District.” The old surface water system includes Cox Reservoir (Cox District Road), and nearby Vondell Reservoir (Grassy Lane).

A Preliminary Engineering Study has identified the critical elements of a plan to establish sustainability for Woodstock’s water supply. A second water storage tank would be located near the existing wells along Route 12. Having two tanks, one each on the east and west sides of town—would supply enough water pressure (above 20 psi) and volume to meet state regulations, the study shows. It also shows that a 12-inch line from the water tank in West Woodstock to the Recreation Center Route 4 Bridge would also help solve the problem.

“The economics are planned out,” said Billings. “These solutions will cost $9.7 million, which would require a rate increase going forward. The Company is in the process of building the rate case to submit to its regulators.”

The engineering report lays out the needed infrastructure for the long term and spreads those costs over a number of years. “The first repair—replacement of one of the existing pumps—could increase the water flow sufficiently that other water flow projects would not need to be done in the first few years,” said Duffy. “As with all infrastructure, there will be needed upgrades over the course of several years.”

With clean and safe drinking water being a high priority, there are numerous federal and state sources of grants and low-income loans available that could fund up to half of the cost of infrastructure improvements to Woodstock’s municipal water system, as well as purchase by the Town, such as Vermont’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, USDA Rural Development funding and President Biden’s Investing in America programs, including the Inflation Reduction Act/Build Back Better Act (H.R. 5376) and Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (H.R. 3684). Time is of the essence because many of these funding opportunities are only available for a short window of time. Unspent ARPA funds can also be put toward drinking water projects.

At the same time, The Woodstock Aqueduct Company hopes the Select Board will complete its study, vote to move forward with the purchase of the Company and then send the question to voters for a vote. The structure of a private water company, which is regulated by the Vermont Public Utility Commission (PUC), has not been sustainable in Vermont. The PUC is encouraging
municipal ownership over private ownership.

“The improvements to the water system will be made no matter who owns the company, but all the studies have shown that a municipally owned water system will cost the users and the taxpayers of Woodstock less than a privately owned water system,” Billings said. “The current system, like most systems in the region, is old,” Geiger observed. “Any piece of infrastructure, like your house or a water system, needs maintenance and that means money. Not just money to run it, but money being set aside for a schedule of planned repairs, and more money set aside for emergencies. It’s not complicated, just hard in that we all want things to be cheaper than they are.”


Learn more about our Vermont Standard articles.