by Dot Helling
It is time for Vermonters to take charge and prioritize the security of our drinking water. Clean, safe drinking water sources are threatened; some are already contaminated. Contamination comes most notably from agricultural runoff, but it also comes from recreational uses. Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, D-Montpelier, has said, “Vermont stands alone in its failure to provide strong protection for its drinking water sources.” A New England water official has described Vermont as the “wild west” when it comes to drinking water protection. Vermont is the only New England state that does not prohibit or impose severe restrictions on human contact with surface drinking water sources.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has recognized the importance of protecting our endangered resources including clean drinking water. In his inaugural speech he said, “everything we hold precious is under threat from climate change and pollution.” When he signed Vermont’s anti-fracking bill he said: “We have never known humanity or life on this planet to survive without clean water.” But although the governor has spoken out to save Lake Champlain, he has yet to publicly support saving our surface drinking waters from human activities.
Vermont’s Water Quality policy commits to “(1) protect and enhance the quality, character and usefulness of surface waters and … insure the public health; (2) [to] maintain the purity of drinking water … [and] to seek over the long term to upgrade the quality of waters and to reduce existing risks to water quality.” 10 V.S.A. Section 1250.
I am a member of the Vermont Clean Water Coalition. We began as the Friends of Berlin Pond, citizens who came together in 2011-2012 when two kayakers challenged restrictions against recreational use of Berlin Pond. Berlin Pond’s water has been Montpelier’s only drinking water supply since 1884, and was protected from recreational use for over 100 years. It supplies drinking water to over 20,000 citizens, including residents of Montpelier and Berlin, the Central Vermont Medical Center, and all who work and serve in our Capital City.
Vermont’s constitution recognizes the need for regulation: “The inhabitants of this State shall have liberty in seasonable times, to … fish in all boatable and other waters (not private property) under proper regulations to be made and provided by the General Assembly.” In the case of Berlin Pond, the Supreme Court determined “the recreational use of Berlin Pond is a matter of state concern requiring a resolution at the state level.” These protections are for the public good, not just for those who fish, hunt, swim and paddle. In the short time Berlin Pond has been open to recreation we have seen the loss of shoreline stability, littering, damage to roadside trees and structures, increased turbidity, spreading milfoil, increased chlorine levels, and increased threats to wetlands and wildlife. It takes just one footstep, one paddle, one canoe or kayak to introduce an invasive species into a pristine pond such as Berlin Pond.
We began as Friends of Berlin Pond. Now, as the Vermont Clean Water Coalition we have expanded our mission. We now seek to protect all of Vermont’s at-risk water supplies, including Berlin Pond, Dix Reservoir, Howe Pond, Barton Reservoir, and Mendon Brook. We are lobbying for support of a bill currently before the legislature, H.33. We have the support of the Toxics Action Center, the Sierra Club, and the Blue Planet Network. H.33 proposes to authorize municipalities to adopt ordinances to regulate surface water use when that water is used as a municipality’s public drinking water supply. The bill was introduced by Rep. Kitzmiller and is sponsored by representatives Leigh Dakin, Mary Hooper, Kathleen C. Keenan, Terry Macaig, Jim McCullough, and Tommy Walz. You can follow the progress of H.33 at http://legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2016/H.0033.
As Kitzmiller reminded our lawmakers, one “cannot argue that human interaction improves (water supply), it degrades…. So why ask to recreate (on drinking water supplies such as Berlin Pond)?” Such use is ludicrous when a municipality has just one possible drinking water supply. There are 800 lakes and ponds in Vermont over five acres in size. Recreationalists often have numerous larger and deeper bodies of water within a few miles of these sources of drinking water (for example, in the case of Berlin Pond, there are 20 within a 25-mile radius of Montpelier and 11 within 20 miles).
We must act before our population explodes as more people move in for the luxury of our water supplies, before Lake Champlain and other surface waters are contaminated beyond repair, before Vermonters must pay dearly for the privilege of drinking safe, clean water. Talk with lawmakers. Use social media. Legislators will look on Facebook to see what support we have. Our website is http://www.vtccleanwater.org and our Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/VermontCleanWaterCoalition. Publicize and rally support for the practical concept of authorizing municipal water districts to manage and protect their own water supplies. There are many ways to contribute — time, energy, funds. Join the cause now and help save Vermont’s drinking water. The threat to our drinking water supply and the taxpayer expense of remediating its pollution can be inexpensively and practically resolved by passing H.33 to give communities whose lives depend on it the authority to protect their drinking water sources.
The author is a retired Montpelier attorney and founding member of the Vermont Clean Water Coalition.