Bottling Plan Pushes Groundwater to Center Stage in Vermont

Published on
by
The New York Times

Bottling Plan Pushes Groundwater to Center Stage in Vermont

by
Felicity Barranger

EAST MONTPELIER, Vt. - Hundreds of gallons of groundwater flow to
the surface in rivulets here each hour, helping to create this town's
signature spring, a lush current typical of northern New England. Just
uphill, a meadow stretches to the doorstep of Daniel Antonovich, a
businessman with plans to bottle and sell about 250,000 gallons a day
from the spring.

The idea makes his neighbors nervous. Like two-thirds of Vermonters
and 40 percent of all New Englanders, most residents of East Montpelier
depend on wells for their water. Some worry that a water-bottling
operation will compromise their ability to shower and flush; others
just do not want their local water sold elsewhere.

In corners of Vermont,
once-reliable well-water supplies have become intermittent in recent
years, with homeowners blaming local developers or mining operations or
a bottling operation. In March, the town of East Montpelier postponed
any bottling for three years. Three months later, in a move that put
Vermont in the company of a growing number of states, the legislature
approved a measure making the state's groundwater a public trust.
Beginning in 2010, anyone seeking to pump more than 57,600 gallons a
day will need a permit, with exceptions for farms, water utilities,
fire districts and some geothermal systems.

Groundwater worries, long common in the arid West, have spread to
the country's wettest areas (and few could be wetter than Vermont this
summer). In recent years, aquifers have been drawn down around Chicago,
Milwaukee and Atlanta. Water had to be trucked into the northern
Vermont town of Montgomery last summer during a drought.

"Water is the resource of the 21st century," said Laurence R.
Becker, Vermont's state geologist. "The amount of water that we use
will increase, and we will be looking for fresh water in many places."

With the growing recognition that groundwater is not limitless, more
states and localities are looking for ways to protect it. Maine,
Massachusetts, Michigan and New Hampshire are at the forefront of this
trend, and Vermont is now making its move.

The concerns of East Montpelier residents are reflected in the Great
Lakes Resources compact, a broad water-management agreement already
approved by the United States Senate and by eight Midwestern states and two Canadian provinces.

"Public policy makers are wrestling with legal systems designed in
an era of abundance," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the Great Lakes
office of the National Wildlife Federation. "They were not designed to
address shortages."

Virginia Lyons, a Democratic state senator in Vermont, believes
that, given the possibility of a future in which water supplies may be
constrained, "we've been doing things in an irrational way."

"We make the assumption that just because you get so many gallons out of a well now, you will forever," Ms. Lyons said.

Responding to groundwater debates from Williston (where neighbors
fought over well water) to Danby (where residents opposed a mining
operation), Ms. Lyons and State Senator Diane Snelling, a Republican,
won passage this year of a measure declaring groundwater to be a
commonly owned resource. In legal parlance, it becomes a public trust.

The new law notwithstanding, there are still few restrictions on
using groundwater, but the new system is designed to help map it,
measure it and apportion it. It puts home and farm uses of water at the
front of the line in case of shortages and makes large-scale
withdrawals, like those envisioned by Mr. Antonovich, who owns the land
where the spring emerges, subject to new permits and monitoring.

Though Vermont is a relative latecomer in adopting a public-trust
status for groundwater, Maude Barlow, a Canadian crusader against
bottled water and the author of "Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis
and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water" (New Press, 2008), argues
that its new law, more than most of the others, anticipates the day
when demand for groundwater outstrips supply.

"It's no longer an under-the-radar issue," said Jon Groveman, the
general counsel of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. "There is now
a sense that groundwater is finite and needs to be protected."

In the past decade, commercial and industrial users, including golf
courses, mines and, most notably, water bottlers, have faced increasing
local opposition in damp regions from Maine to Wisconsin. Andrew W.
MacLean, a lobbyist in Montpelier, the capital, who represents
industries affected by the new legislation, said he believed that the
law duplicated existing requirements, but that he did not want to
oppose it.

"There was a recognition by people that something was going to
pass," Mr. MacLean said. "The desire by the business community was to
play an active role and shape it as we were able."

Early opponents, like farmers, mostly stayed on the sidelines when their water uses were grandfathered under the law.

Surface water in streams, lakes and rivers, has been legally managed
for hundreds of years. But groundwater, until recent years, was often
treated as something separate, hydrologically and legally. Both
distinctions are now breaking down.

A 2007 report by the Ground Water Protection Council, a nonprofit
group, pointed out that, although much is not known about exactly how
groundwater moves through geological formations, it "typically moves
very slowly." Replenishment from rain or surface water, or "recharge"
as the experts term it, tends to be gradual. Extraction of groundwater
tends to alter the pattern and speed of natural flows, the report said.

Mr. Becker, the state geologist, said Vermont's groundwater traveled
along fractures in the rock, moving, in effect, down a twisting series
of underground tubes. Mapping a Vermont aquifer and measuring its
contents is thus akin to tracing a Jackson Pollock painting - there are numerous units, of irregular dimensions, to delineate.

While some residents of East Montpelier worry that their wells may
suffer if Mr. Antonovich's firm, the Montpelier Springs Water Company,
opens for business, Mr. Antonovich said that he had had the aquifer
mapped and that there was more than enough water for all.

Mr. Antonovich, a furrier in the New York area who has been
vacationing in Vermont for half a century, said he did not plan to
contest the three-year moratorium.

He and his anti-bottling neighbors like Carolyn Shapiro have
maintained a relative cordiality, and that also typifies the debate
over the public-trust law. Mr. Groveman, one of the bill's architects,
drew praise not only from its legislative sponsors but also from Mr.
MacLean, who represented the golf course and bottled-water industries.

The law, Senator Lyons said, commanded such broad support in part
because it called for mapping and monitoring, not increased regulation.
"It is a beginning," she said. Mr. Buchsbaum said he believed that the
Vermont law could produce fairer and more comprehensive results when
done before a crisis, or "we'll be trying to change our water laws in
the context that the West is now."

"There is no water and they're trying to apportion droplets," he
said of the West. "They're in the terrible position of trying to judge
between needs that are all critical with not enough resources."

"We have the chance to get ahead of it," Mr. Buchsbaum said.

 

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