In its earliest days, Saint Michael's College got water from a private company founded just after the Civil War to bring Colchester Pond water to Winooski Falls (now Winooski), since Colchester never wanted to have municipal water service, and surprisingly, still doesn't. In that regard, St. Mike's and neighbors have long been on their own in providing ample water.
When Winooski seceded from Colchester in the 1920s, Winooski officials wanted the existing line to run right into Gilbrook Reservoir, west and downhill from campus, "which would have left St Mike's high and dry," explains local water official, historian and Edmundite priest Fr. Joe McLaughlin. In response, Colchester Fire District No. 1 formed in 1938 with strong leadership from Saint Michael's officials, who have had a prominent role in its success since. "Fire District" is a wide-encompassing term from early U.S. history referring to municipalities created for very specific practical purposes, including utilities. Thus CFD No. 1 has nothing to do with fire protection, though some fire districts do.
The newly formed district first took over some pipes from the old private supplier before trying an arrangement with the federal government to get water through Fort Ethan Allen right after World War II. But the fort's decommissioning made alternatives urgent. "They had to go to the City of Winooski, hat in hand, and ask if they could get it from them," McLaughlin explains. "Winooski got their water at the time from Burlington and the pipe ran across the Winooski bridge - alumni will recall you could see it - continuing up here. But it was hard since we're kind of high up on this hill, with just pressure from the water tower at UVM to push it uphill."
That was the college's water setup until about 1970. Then the Champlain Water District (CWD) was formed as greater Burlington's first truly regional water utility. IBM's new plant in Essex Junction served as a catalyst. CWD undertook to extract and purify water from Lake Champlain, and then transmit this very high quality drinking water over a number of miles from Bartlett's Bay in South Burlington to Essex. So, CWD's water started flowing west from Essex through St. Mike's and on to Winooski rather than up from Winooski. "It meant lots of pipes in the ground on or near campus going in more directions than they knew what to do with, and lots of them were dead ends," McLaughlin says.
By spring of 2012 and in the wake of all the costly recent line breaks, McLaughlin says, district officials were amazed "by how crazy a problem it seemed to be" with such an unintuitive, quirk-of-history tangle of pipes – but they were just as amazed at how neatly it was solved by a Saint Michael's College master's graduate, Jim Fay, general manager of CWD. "We were looking at drawings of the existing Saint Michael's and CFD No. 1 waterlines at a meeting in Pomerleau Alumni Center," McLaughlin recalls, and then Fay's creative imagination envisioned how pieces of both could be reconfigured with some additional new lines to design two far better water systems. That was genuinely a "wow" moment for everyone in the room. The district's new 'core' system also fixes all kind of design problems in the St. Michael's system, replaces old pipes with new ones, and all at a price cheaper than if we'd just replaced the old line, which would have had no impact on design problems. So this is a systemic fix for the college and the district," he says.
McLaughlin and Jerry Flanagan, the college's longtime admissions chief and also a veteran water district official, prepared a fact sheet on the upgrade. It notes that at least five breaks in recent years on an old, fragile main line located in the wrong place (alongside a busy major highway) is the best reason for the project. The new main going through campus is the solution, they say, as an "integrated route combining existing elements of the college's water system with new elements built by the district for a core distribution system with multiple loops" to keep water flowing. Costs of the project will be about $1.2 million for the District, covered by ratepayer assessments after a bond passed last year. Roughly 50 percent of the water sold by the Fire District goes to the College, with the rest to Fletcher Allen Healthcare's Fanny Allen Campus and other nearby smaller businesses and residences.