by Jed and Page Guertin
What’s changed now that people are swimming, boating, fishing and hunting on our drinking water source, Berlin Pond?
The obvious change is an increase in turbidity — suspended particles kicked up by people launching boats at the south end of the pond and boating in the shallows. This requires Montpelier’s water treatment plant to backflush (clean) its filters 20 percent more frequently than it used to, increasing processing costs.
The risk of invasive species, the most damaging being zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil, is another threat magnified by human activity. Invasives are transported by people, from an infested body of water like Lake Champlain. They can change the ecology of a pond and clog a system’s filters, intakes and pipes, requiring costly maintenance or replacement. The state said “we don’t think” invasives would be a problem, but science doesn’t support that conjecture.
The engineer who designed our water treatment system explained that treatment removes or inactivates a percentage of contaminants in the water — not all. Since human contact is a source of fecal coliforms, there are more pathogens in the pond now than there were before 2012. Consequently there are more pathogens in our drinking water, based on the percentages. Our water is still safe, but it’s less safe than it was before. We know that people are pooping in the pond: a representative of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and Vermont Traditions testified that, since the shores of the pond are posted “No Trespassing,” fishermen can’t go ashore to relieve themselves because they’d be subject to prosecution. The implication was, if they poop in the pond, no one’s watching.
Of the possible pathogens, Cryptosporidium is the worst. Human-carried Cryptosporidium is so virulent that the Environmental Protection Agency developed a special rule for it. This will require new testing, and potentially costly new treatment processes if it’s found. Cryptosporidium is unaffected by chlorine. Currently, we don’t have to test for Cryptosporidium, but there are 46 cases of cryptosporidiosis in Vermont this year.
The Commissioner of Environmental Conservation said, in testimony, there was no or negligible risk to opening Berlin Pond to recreation. Then he added, “I would say, just as an aside, that for drinking water risks of the kind that we’re talking about, it would be people who had kind of impaired immune systems, very young, very old or people who were suffering immunological diseases and so forth. But it wouldn’t be healthy adults like myself.”
Are all those people simply “an aside?” How many negligible risks does it take to make a substantial risk?
Vermont has no laws specifically to protect the quality of drinking water sources. By contrast, the rest of New England takes the threat of human recreation seriously. Here are some management practices that are utilized.
It’s clear, from all the Ns under VT, that the state not only doesn’t practice these management techniques, they’re not even allowed. Many of the individual towns do prohibit or restrict access to their water sources through their charters, as Montpelier did, but the state is threatening to open those ponds too.
On November 18, Montpelier’s City Council will discuss the language of a charter change, to regain authority to manage the waters of Berlin Pond. We need to support this effort. The state’s actions in opening the pond have increased the City’s risk of both drinking water contamination and escalating costs of treatment, with no quantifiable benefits. The City is better positioned to manage our water source, as it did for 100 years, to provide the best quality and least costly drinking water to its citizens.