The story behind Sugarbush’s water system
It’s a bright early-summer day when I drive to meet Gene Martin, Sugarbush’s director of utilities and chief wastewater operator. My mission is to get a handle on the process involved in water and wastewater treatment at Sugarbush, and today it’s not hard to think about water. As I sail up the Access Road, the Clay Brook is running contentedly, on its way to the Winooski River and eventually Lake Champlain, and the trees are still wet from the heavy rains the day before.
When I arrive, Martin is standing in front of the wastewater treatment facility with Doug Kyser, assistant chief wastewater operator, no doubt discussing the myriad testing and maintenance tasks they’ve already completed today. Sugarbush’s water system essentially has three components that operate as private companies owned by Summit Ventures: Mountain Water Company (MWC), Lincoln Peak Wastewater Treatment (LPWWT), and Mountain Wastewater Treatment (MWT). Mountain Water Company is concerned with the acquisition, treatment, storage, and distribution of drinking water for all of Sugarbush, including the SHaRC (Sugarbush Health & Recreation Center) and the homes on Village Road. LPWWT collects and processes all wastewater from the Schoolhouse and the Clay Brook, Rice Brook, and Gadd Brook complexes, and has additional capacity for future development. Mountain Wastewater Treatment collects and processes all the remaining wastewater that runs down drains, sinks, toilets, and manholes at the resort. It’s a daunting task, when you consider this: water usage at Sugarbush during February 2016 was 1,888,270 gallons. And certified water and wastewater operators are in charge of more than just collecting and processing water—they are responsible for protecting human health and the environment. It’s not a nine-to-five job. During emergencies, like a fire or a water main break in the middle of the night, Martin and his team have to be there to route water to where it’s needed the most. The task becomes even more daunting when you consider that Martin and his team of four employees also operate numerous other water and wastewater facilities, including those for Mt. Ellen, the Sugarbush Inn, and Sugarbush Golf Club.
Water is collected from thirteen bedrock wells scattered throughout the mountains above the base area, and from the Clay Brook, whose water is filtered and treated at a recently rebuilt facility several steps from the new Valley House Quad.
The first step in obtaining water for the mountain is pumping it from the wells. Martin and I ascend the steep dirt roads in his truck until we reach the top of Village Road. We park, admire the view, and walk into the woods a few hundred feet, until we come across an unassuming metal device that looks like a cross between a fire hydrant and a parking meter.
“That’s a well?” I ask.
“That’s a well,” he responds. It’s a far cry from the wood-and-fieldstone structure with Lassie barking next to it that I had pictured in my mind. Sugarbush’s wells are strategically scouted out by professional hydrologists and require permits for every step of their construction. It can take three to four years of planning, permitting, drilling, and construction before a well can be used as a water source. (A fourteenth well, intended to provide water to the resort’s next phase of development, is currently being permitted.)
The well water is pumped from depths of up to 800 feet and then is treated for any bacteria with chlorine; at the same time, the water’s pH level is adjusted with soda ash, to keep the water from corroding the old lead pipes. (Last fall MWC started adding orthophosphate, a food-grade substance, to further reduce the potential for lead in drinking water.) The water is then stored in a network of five underground reservoirs that communicate electronically and replenish each other’s supplies when they run low.
To supplement well water, surface water is taken from Clay Brook at a site just next to the Valley House Quad. This water requires more careful treatment than the essentially pristine groundwater pumped from the wells, as water from the surface is exposed to more natural contaminants, like particulates and bacteria. MWC water is tested frequently in accordance with federal and state standards, which mandate sampling for a range of contaminants including coliform, lead, and copper.
Just as important as clean drinking water is how the water is left after it’s used: treatment of wastewater is an essential aspect of the resort’s environmental mission. The two by-products of this process are treated water—which, when processed properly, is safe to release into the environment—and what Martin poetically calls the “blanket of sludge”—the solid refuse carted away by truck to a Montpelier treatment facility.
The idea is to separate and clean the wastewater, a comprehensive process that involves filtration, aeration (to promote bacterial and physical breakdown), and disinfection.
The aeration is done in two ways: inside with big industrial mixers, and outside in open-air lagoons. Wastewater from the Schoolhouse, and the Clay Brook, Rice Brook, and Gadd Brook developments is routed to a facility off Inferno Road (LPWWT), where it is stirred by giant mixers and aerated by industrial bubblers, like an oversized fish tank. As we stand on a grate watching the machine do its thing, it is surprisingly odorless. Wastewater from the buildings constructed before the Clay Brook complex is sent to an older treatment facility behind SHaRC (MWT), where wastewater is aerated in Sugarbush’s outdoor lagoons.
At LPWWT, the wastewater also goes through anaerobic (non-aeration) cycles, in which the liquid is left to sit while the bacteria do the work. If the bacteria are sluggish, sugar is added to the mix. (If anyone at Timbers is missing a 400-pound sack of white sugar, check with Martin and his team.)
Finally, the mix is left to settle and decant—a term some may recognize from the wine world, wherein sediment is allowed to sink to the bottom of a container in order to separate it out. The top few feet are skimmed from the surface and sent through a sand filtration system, then zapped with UV light to kill any harmful bacteria, and finally distributed into leach fields, a few cleared acres that are deemed fit (by the state) for the release of treated water.
Because things tend to dry up on the mountain in the summer, from June through November Sugarbush holds all of the treated water from MWT in a tank instead of discharging it. In order for treated water to be distributed effectively, there must be ample naturally occurring surface water for it to mix with and disperse into. It is not your average water tank: it is a 9.1-million-gallon, open-air stadium of a tank. It is so large, it has dam permits.
We decide to check out the tank stationed near SHaRC behind a set of shallow, rock-lined pools. On the way I pick a tiny wild strawberry as a snack, but decide against eating it as I remember we are standing on a very green stretch of grass between two “lagoons”—the industry term for untreated wastewater.
I climb a ten-foot ladder while Martin steadies it so I can look inside. “Intimidating” isn’t the word for the experience—it is, in fact, thrilling to peer over the edge of such a large industrial structure in the middle of a natural haven like Sugarbush. I shout my name, and it returns to me in an echo three times.
The huge tank is a reminder of the size and importance of the job of managing Sugarbush’s water system. Yet if all is working as it should—clean water in, and clean water back out—few beyond Martin and his staff give the process a second thought. What does command attention around the resort are the many clean streams and brooks, part of the ecosystem that provides the drinking water for close to a half-million guests every year.