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OPINION: Protecting Our Drinking Water


by Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, D-Montpelier

Beginning with the governor’s state of the state message, much attention has been paid to the issue of clean water. That’s a good thing, because the governor has admitted that we are  losing the fight for clean water. Of course, much of the attention has been focused on the  “crown jewel” of Vermont’s waters: Lake Champlain. That’s as it should be, since our beautiful western border lake is seriously damaged, and is in dire need of great repair.

However, Lake Champlain is not the only body of water that is threatened with pollution. Of increasing concern lately are the surface ponds and small lakes that provide drinking water to a number of Vermont municipalities. These ponds and lakes have virtually no protection in our laws. While a few towns have language in their charters that allow them to regulate the use of their water supply ponds, even they are at risk, due to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resource’s official position that recreation poses no threat to drinking water supplies. Simply put, some of these towns may not have the protection they think they have.

Research proves Vermont stands alone among New England states in its failure to provide strong protection for surface drinking water sources. As a general rule, our five New England neighbors prohibit human contact with waters that supply drinking water to towns. There are some exceptions, yes, but even with the exceptions, there are serious restrictions that minimize the risk. In fact, every New England state capital gets its drinking water from a source that has severe restrictions on human use …  except for Vermont. Our state capital, Montpelier, recently had its sole water source stripped of the protection it enjoyed for well over 100 years.

Our Department of Environmental Conservation’s mission statement reads: “To preserve, enhance, restore, and conserve Vermont’s natural resources, and protect human health for the benefit of this and future generations,” and our Water Quality Policy says, among other things, that “It is the policy of the State of Vermont to protect and enhance the quality, character and usefulness of its surface waters and to assure the public health; and to maintain the purity of drinking water … ”

Yet, in disregard of the rules originally developed by our Agency of Natural Resources and our Department of  Environmental Conservation they seemingly allow every possible body of water to be open for swimming, fishing and boating with as few restrictions as possible, and with no enforcement of any sort.

In contrast, the New England Water Works Association wrote that “Recreational use of terminal reservoirs and adjacent land is contrary to the basic function of furnishing a safe, palatable water supply to customers and should be prohibited to the greatest extent possible, but in no event should direct contact with the reservoir be allowed.” The Maine Water Utilities Association wrote that “short of sewage discharge, human body contact with the water is the most threatening human activity.”

I have introduced legislation (H.33) that would provide local control to municipalities over surface water sources used as their public water supply. This idea is not new, since several fortunate communities already have protections for their surface water sources built into their charters and ordinances. The concept is compatible with both our constitution and with the “public trust doctrine.”

The state of Vermont seems unwilling to take the most basic steps to protect our drinking water. They have failed to set rules that protect our water, they bear none of the costs and they provide no enforcement. I believe that local control by those municipalities who already bear the cost of treatment should have the opportunity to develop (or not) their own best practices for minimizing the risk to their water system customers. An affected municipality could then make the choice to buy “an ounce of prevention” rather than submit to paying for a “pound of cure.”

The people who drink the water should have the right to regulate the use of the water.