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Where’s the water gone?

Finding and protecting Vermont’s groundwater sources

By Carrie Chandler | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted March 22, 2007

You wake up in the morning, start the shower, and hop in. Then, you turn on the tap, brush your teeth, or get a glass of water. All of these things involve water. Most of the time, people don’t think of the water they use, or where it comes from.

In Vermont, two thirds of households rely on groundwater to supply their drinking, bathing, and cleaning needs. Because Vermont’s groundwater is not protected, the majority of households could see their main source of water threatened.

Groundwater is stored underground in aquifers, made up of sand and gravel. Aquifers are recharged by rain and snow melt. When too much water is taken out of the aquifer, the resource is depleted and water is unavailable. Pollution occurs when septic tanks, gas tanks, and landfill debris leak into the aquifer.

“In Vermont, there is a lack of knowledge about our groundwater and a lack of oversight of activities that have the potential to harm our groundwater resources,” said Jon Groveman, water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC).

“Most Vermonters think their groundwater is being protected, but it’s not,” said Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, referring to the Groundwater Protection Act of 1985. “The law currently allows you to sue if your water has been contaminated, but the damage has already been done.

“People think that Vermont has enough water, but there are very real issues with contamination and depletion,” Smith adds.

Part of the problem is that the Agency of Natural Resources does not know the size or location of the state’s aquifers. Without this knowledge, Vermont cannot protect its water resources from depletion or pollution.

“The states around Vermont have now taken steps to protect their groundwater from overuse,” said Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee. “That makes Vermont a target for further development of groundwater wells for commercial or industrial use. There is also a bit of a concern that international treaties like [the North American Free Trade Agreement] would override any controls we put in the place in the future so we wanted to put them in place now.”

Currently, Vermont’s water is protected through regulatory processes. “Once you have messed up an aquifer, there is precious little that you can do,” said Jeff Wennberg, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. “So, the number one protection is prevention.”

That means waste management and drinking water statutes and regulations are the main defenders of the state’s groundwater, Wennberg said.

VNRC and a coalition of other water groups in the state felt that prevention is not enough, and supported legislation to protect Vermont’s groundwater during the 2006 legislative session.

“The coalition was looking for three major provisions in legislation: requiring compliance with Vermont law that mandates the mapping of groundwater, protecting groundwater, and declaring groundwater to be a public trust resource so it is clear that groundwater is a common resource that belongs to all of us,” said Groveman.

Act 144 was adopted last session as a result of VNRC’s efforts, creating a committee to study groundwater and “make recommendations to the Legislature about what type of groundwater protections should be adopted in Vermont, how to fund groundwater mapping and whether to declare groundwater in Vermont a public trust resource,” Groveman said. The committee is due to present their recommendations to the Legislature by January 2008.

The committee, comprised of representatives from House and Senate agricultural committees, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and the Vermont state geologist, and also includes representatives from municipalities, industry, citizens, and statewide environmental groups. For seven months, the committee existed without a full membership, as the governor failed to appoint a member of a local environmental group. The appointment has finally been made, and the committee will continue into this year with a full slate.

A preliminary report released by the committee in January noted that groundwater mapping should begin as soon as possible, “to protect the groundwater resources of the state while simultaneously providing for adequately planned development and groundwater withdrawal.”

In response, lawmakers are considering bills that would require the Agency of Natural Resources to begin groundwater mapping in Franklin County this year, with funding slated to come from the General Fund.

With a total cost estimated at $6-7 million to complete the process, the state’s general fund may not support that. DEC “is still turning over stones [for funding] because we realize that a comprehensive effort is needed, but finding the resources is difficult,” said Wennberg. Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Crombie and Larry Becker, the state geologist, have both been to place Washington in an effort to secure federal funding for the process.

The preliminary report failed to touch on the issue of creating a public water trust in the state.

“New Hampshire has a groundwater protection program and has declared groundwater to be a public trust resource, so Vermont is behind the curve on groundwater protection,” said Groveman. The report notes that the committee has heard testimony from New Hampshire representatives involved in the creation of a public trust in that state, but have made no recommendations on whether this is the correct option for Vermont.

“As an overriding concept, the public trust is a good idea. It sets a framework that you can’t just come in and take the water, because it belongs to everyone,” said Smith.

She also notes that groundwater protection is “an extremely complicated issue, and the solution doesn’t just pop out at you. It is really important that we take time to figure out the answer.”

The committee is slated to meet again this month, and will continue to work toward just such a solution.

Vermont’s interest in protecting groundwater flows from several sources — growing concerns worldwide about the exploitation and commodification of water and consensus among environmentalists in Vermont that groundwater knowledge and protection in Vermont are long overdue, Groveman said.

“The groundwater problems in Vermont represent a cross section of the threats to groundwater nationwide,” he said. Like the rest of the nation, Vermont’s water is not only subject to outside forces, but is threatened by pollution, overuse, and industrial withdrawals.

“Pollution is the biggest threat right now but in the long run overuse will become a bigger problem. There are some few situations in Vermont where home development over time has over taxed an aquifer,” said Deen.

In Williston, housing subdivisions in one part of town were all tapping into the same aquifer for water supply. Eventually, the aquifer reached its limit and homes began seeing their wells run dry.

Of concern to VNRC and others is the kind of water withdrawal that takes water completely out of the system.

“Other uses return the water that is used to the watershed by discharging the water to a septic system or sewage treatment plant,” said Groveman.

“The water that is bottled and shipped is gone from that community forever.”

In Randolph, a commercial water bottler, Clearsource (which purchased the operation from Vermont Pure), withdraws water daily from a local spring. The withdrawal has resulted in Blaisdell Brook experiencing low flows.

While these and other threats exist for Vermont’s water, protection is necessary.

“Water is not a commodity like other resources such as metals, minerals, oil, and gas,” said Groveman. “There are substitutes for these resources. However, if our fresh water supply is compromised, there is nothing that can substitute for water.”