OPINION: Your Drinking Water: Managing the Risk of Recreation on the Source

Protection of drinking water sources is serious business in most New England states and New York. The laws may be administered by the state, community or water utility, but almost every state prohibits or restricts swimming and body contact in water supply sources. Other recreation is banned or limited largely depending on the size of the water source. Water authorities such as the New England Water Works Association discourage all body contact activities in water supply ponds and lakes, and advise monitoring of other recreational activities to prevent the introduction of invasives.

Most New England states recognize the conflict between safe drinking water and recreation, and attempt to balance those competing interests in a thoughtful manner, using the precautionary principle. They have responded to new human-carried threats that have arisen in the past 20 to 30 years: invasive species, including Eurasian milfoil and zebra mussels, which wreak havoc on water systems and pond ecology, and pathogens like the nasty protozoan cryptosporidium, which is so dangerous that the EPA has developed a special rule aimed primarily at that organism.

Vermont is the exception. Vermont holds that fishing, boating and swimming are compatible uses with public water supply in lakes and ponds. Eleven municipalities, including Barre, St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, Brattleboro, and Montpelier — almost 10 percent of the state’s population — use ponds as the source of their drinking water. For years the state health department oversaw drinking water safety, and each municipality protected its own water source. In 1991, however, the Legislature transferred control over the waters to the Agency of Natural Resources, which also oversees hunting and fishing — arguably an inherent conflict of interest.

Since then, pressure has been building to challenge the protection offered by municipalities and open the water supply ponds to recreation. After a lawsuit led the supreme court to rule that one municipality did not have legal authority over its water source, the Agency of Natural Resources opened that pond to recreation. Two other communities opened or partially opened their water supply ponds, believing that they had no option.

The Agency of Natural Resources has stated that they are “obligated” to open all the water supply ponds to recreation. They say the risk is “negligible,” and no management is needed. Their policy is, “If there’s a problem, we’ll deal with it.” This has left the opened ponds in limbo: the state has no funds to monitor recreational use, and the municipalities have no authority over it. So the drinking water sources for those communities are at increased risk for contamination and no one is watching.

Why is Vermont, supposedly the “green” state, so out of sync with our neighbors in the area of drinking water protection? Why are we still reactive, while the other states are proactive in managing the risk of drinking water contamination? How many negligible risks does it take to create a significant risk? A representative of the agency stated, in testimony, that the only people who might be impacted by this negligible risk are those with immune system issues, very young children and the elderly. Are those people simply immaterial?

This is the first of several articles around the issue of our drinking water source ponds, with the hope of providing information and sparking discussion. Future articles will cover more on the potential threats to drinking water quality, costs vs. benefits of opening the ponds and who pays, source protection plans, how water treatment plants work, details about what other states are doing, Vermont’s legal framework around water sources and how it has been administered, and the new EPA rule on cryptosporidium. Anyone with information about this issue can contact the Vermont Clean Water Coalition at vcwcvt@gmail.com.

by Jed and Page Guertin, Montpelier

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