The Agency of Natural Resources will be holding a public hearing this evening at 6:00 to consider recreational use of Berlin Pond, the source of Montpelier's drinking water. The hearing will be at the Berlin Elementary School, and is likely to be heavily attended by people on both sides of the controversy.
Recent Montpelier City Council candidate Page Guertin provides this commentary, with background and reasons why the state should not allow the proposed recreational use of this vital natural resource:
Berlin Pond has been Montpelier's tap water supply source for 130 years, and during that time it has been protected from human use and therefore a relatively pure water supply. Now through a combination of governmental action (or inaction) and a Vermont Supreme Court ruling, that history has been turned on its head, and Montpelier's water supply is seriously threatened by human recreation on the pond. Montpelier owns most of the land around the pond, but not all of it, and a disputed area is being surveyed for the possibility of installing a gravel launch ramp for boats on that location, to be built by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Governor Shumlin and Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz believe that opening the pond to recreation is a great victory for sportsmen's rights under Vermont's public trust doctrine. But what about the citizens of Montpelier and the thousands of people who work there daily? What about the Central Vermont Medical Center? What about the residents and businesses in Berlin that use the same water source? What about their rights – or rather their absolute requirement – for clean water? Whose rights are more important? Which use is more applicable under the public trust?
It was very clear in the Supreme Court decision of 2012 that the court recognized the significance of Berlin Pond as the water source for Montpelier. It was also clear that the court handed ANR two options for protecting that source: limit the use of Berlin Pond while still remaining within the bounds of the public trust – a public water supply easily falls within that definition – or delegate authority over the pond to Montpelier. Either of these actions would be a reasonable and responsible position for ANR to take. Keeping the pond open to boating, fishing and swimming is simply irresponsible in these times of declining clean water sources, increasing pollutants, multiplying invasives and greater understanding of the hazards of pathogens and petrochemical contamination.
Fresh water supplies worldwide are dwindling due to overuse, industrial pollution, population increase and climate change. Here in Vermont we are fortunate to have abundant fresh water, but we cannot afford to abuse it or take its quality for granted. Vermont's water quality policy (VSA 10, §1250) begins with “(1) protect and enhance the quality, character and usefulness of its surface waters and to assure the public health; (2) maintain the purity of drinking water….” It goes on to state, “It is further the policy of the state to seek over the long term to upgrade the quality of waters and to reduce existing risks to water quality.” Allowing recreation on Berlin Pond flies in the face of that policy. Additionally, the water rules which say boating, fishing and swimming are compatible with drinking water supplies are frankly out of date given our current level of knowledge about pathogens, invasives, the hazards of petroleum in our water, and the rising expense of purification. The original 1926 Board of Health rule protecting the pond was written to prohibit “activities judged to potentially pollute a source of water,” according to the Supreme Court opinion. ANR chose not to adopt that rule when authority over the waters transferred from the Department of Health. The rules can be changed, however, and ANR is in a position to do that. Massachusetts, for example, has an exception to its public trust doctrine which protects drinking water supplies. We would be wise to do that in Vermont.
According to the designer of Montpelier's water treatment plant, that system is not capable of detecting or removing petroleum products, nor can it handle greatly increased turbidity. Invasive species like zebra mussels or Eurasian milfoil, unwittingly carried into the water on the bottom of boats or on waders, could clog the water intake or the filtration system, requiring expensive maintenance. People walking along the silty shores to fish or launch boats stir up the soft bottom, muddying the water and causing turbidity, and swimmers – just by being in the water – increase the fecal coliforms and other pathogens present. Both turbidity and pathogens increase the demand for chlorine used to treat the water. Chlorine is a known carcinogen, despite its worldwide use for water purification – do we really want to increase the amount of it required to remove pathogens in our water? What happens if the treatment plant cannot keep up with the degradation of the water coming into it? Who pays for the upgrades that may be required? We pay: the users of the system, not the boaters or fishermen.
Prevention is always more effective and less expensive than remediation.