Mayor&Rsquo;S Office

Mayor's Update - July 2018

Summer in Burlington is now in full swing.  Here are our latest updates:


Decades of Ongoing Work to Better Protect Our Lake

With summer come seasonal challenges to the protection of our beautiful lake, and I would like to take this opportunity to provide a brief summary of the City’s long history of working towards this goal.


Recently, there have been a number of unplanned discharges into or adjacent to Lake Champlain resulting from different root causes: a valve failure at our Main Wastewater Plant, a sewer backing up due to a paving contractors error, challenges with our biological treatment process at the Main Wastewater Treatment Plant resulting in poor disinfection of combined sewer flow on June 2 and June 4 and, most recently, a discharge from one of our Combined Sewer Overflow points into the Pine Barge Canal during Monday’s intense rain storm (during which we received a total of 2.28” in nine hours).  The City considers even one gallon of discharge to the Lake to be too much, and has been working for years to reduce the number and impact of these events.


Sewer System History

Burlington first constructed a sewer system in the late 19th century, and for almost 100 years, our City - like all Vermont municipalities - discharged raw waste directly into the Lake Champlain and other waterways without any treatment. As was typical of older cities, Burlington was built with a combined sewer system – meaning one pipe carries both sanitary waste and stormwater away from buildings and streets. When the flow of water is greater than what the pipes can carry (which typically happens during intense storms where rain falls over a short time period), a mixture of stormwater and wastewater can discharge into receiving waters. This is called a combined sewer overflow or CSO, and is what occurred during the intense storm event on Monday, June 18. While not desirable, CSOs were designed to help prevent sewage from backing up into homes and businesses where the likelihood of direct contact would be higher.


It was not until 1953 that the Main Wastewater Treatment Plant was built - the first to be constructed in Vermont. Up until 1994, when Main Plant was again upgraded with a combined sewer treatment system, Burlington had over a dozen CSO outfalls which discharged large volumes of untreated, non-disinfected mixtures of stormwater and wastewater directly onto the shores of Lake Champlain.


Based on measurements of what that wet weather system currently treats, we estimate that an annual average of 170 million gallons of untreated, non-disinfected CSOs were discharging to the Lake until that upgrade. To put that in perspective, during the June 18 storm event, while the Pine Street CSO did release 165,000 gallons of combined sewer flow, Main Plant’s combined sewer treatment system successfully processed and fully disinfected 17.5 million gallons of combined sewer flow.  Our system released only 1 percent of the volume that we would have otherwise without Main Plant’s system.


Continued Improvements

For the last six years our Administration has continued the long journey of modernizing and improving Burlington’s wastewater, stormwater, and drinking water systems.  While we have worked hard to keep municipal property tax increases and other fees at or under the rate of inflation, we have increased our annual stormwater fees by over 60 percent and bonded for both wastewater and water improvements in recognition of the urgent need in this area.  Some examples of our recent investments are:

  • Significant cleaning of the Colchester Ave and Pine St combined sewer pipes to increase flow capacity.
  • Beginning to install permanent flow meters in our CSOs to better quantify the amount of combined sewer overflows that occur and improve modeling.
  • Conducting computer modeling and asset management of our infrastructure, which informs our decisions on reinvesting in these pipes.
  • Undertaking the State’s first integrated planning effort to address all of Burlington’s clean water challenges. This includes evaluating alternatives for phosphorus removal and wet weather treatment at the plants as well as combined sewer stormwater volume reduction and separate stormwater pollution reduction.
  • Rezoning the downtown to require new developments to meet the most stringent stormwater management standards in Vermont.
  • Investments in green infrastructure to restore ecological balance to our streetscape, beautify our street vegetation and trees, and further protect the Lake. The redevelopment of St. Paul St. will be a great example of this.
  • And much more. Read more about our work and wastewater and stormwater system history here:


Next Steps

We believe the most urgent need in the system currently is to address the conditions that have reduced the biological effectiveness of the Main Wastewater Treatment Plant.  Since 2013, our Public Works Department (DPW) has been assessing a surcharge to the high strength flow produced by breweries to mitigate the additional costs such waste incurs for the Wastewater system. In 2017 it became clear that the loading of high strength waste was presenting problems for our biological process. Over the course of 2017, DPW had been developing a more extensive pollution prevention and pre-treatment program to require facilities to reduce the overall strength of waste being discharged.  DPW has already met with several of our industrial users to implement immediate interim measures and accelerate progress towards a formal program to significantly lessen the load these users contribute to our wastewater system.


It’s clear that additional investments in our wastewater and stormwater systems will still be necessary. We are in the middle of significant due diligence to determine the most impactful investments for the years ahead, and we look forward to communicating more about this issue with you, and working together to ensure that our generation continues the City’s proud record in recent decades of being one of Vermont’s leading forces for lake and river environmental protection.


As always, I encourage you to join me at the Bagel Café on Wednesday mornings from 8-9am to share any thoughts or questions. You can also visit my Facebook page at, or follow me on Twitter at @BTVMayor for information on the work of the Mayor’s Office and our City Departments. I look forward to seeing you soon.