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Retaining Water

Vermont dips into a turbulent debate over groundwater protection


Published July 5, 2006 at 1:52 p.m.

Every summer for the last several years, some residents of Williston have turned on their faucets and no water has come out. In Cleveland, Ohio, last month, the mayor proposed raising the rates on municipal water by 80 percent, inspiring a flood of criticism. And in Detroit, Michigan, a few years ago, more than 40,000 people -- mostly elderly, poor and disabled -- had their water shut off by the city because they couldn't afford to pay their bills, prompting Social Services to take some of their children away.

If you think the coming global water crisis will only affect third-world countries, guess again.

That's the message from international water activist Maude Barlow. Often called "the Ralph Nader of Canada," she is the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, that country's largest citizen-advocacy group. Barlow is also co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, which is fighting to stop the commercialization of public water supplies. As co-author of the book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World's Water, she sees this fight as "the preeminent human-rights issue of our time."

"I use the term 'blue gold' because water is absolutely the gold of this century," Barlow tells Seven Days in a recent phone interview from her Ottawa home. "Those who control it won't only be financially wealthy, but will also be very powerful politically. This will be the asset to have."

Barlow's dire prediction -- that in the 21st century, water will be what oil was in the 20th, a commodity worth fighting over -- sounds like something out of a Mad Max movie. But she contends that signs of the coming crisis are already evident throughout the world, from Burlington to Beijing. Next week, she'll be in Vermont urging citizens to act quickly to protect our public water supplies from pollution, depletion and corporate exploitation.

Barlow's visit coincides with the enactment of H.294, Vermont's groundwater management act, which took effect July 1. This landmark legislation, which was signed by the governor in May, marks Vermont's first step toward determining exactly where we stand in relation to that precious natural resource beneath our feet.

Among other things, the law requires water users who withdraw more than 50,000 gallons per day to obtain a groundwater permit from the state. It also sets up a task force to take a comprehensive look at Vermont's groundwater issues, including the creation of a statewide groundwater management program, mapping the state's underground aquifers, and searching for funding streams for that project, which could cost an estimated $10 million. The task force is expected to begin meeting within the next month and issue a preliminary report of recommendations to the legislature by January.

The most controversial business of the task force likely will be the ensuing debate over whether Vermont should declare its groundwater resources in the "public trust," as states like Maine and New Hampshire have done. Essentially, this would mean that Vermont's water supplies are not owned by one person or corporation but belong to everyone. Other large consumers of water, from ski areas and agriculture to water bottling plants, would need to be weighed against the public's interest.

Currently, about 50 percent of all water used in the United States comes from underground aquifers; in Vermont, that figure is closer to 66 percent, according to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Barlow explains that the use of groundwater has increased dramatically in recent years due to the pollution of surface waters that are now undrinkable.

The result has been a phenomenon she calls "groundwater mining." Unlike traditional notions of wells, in which water is removed and replenished in a sustainable hydrological cycle, groundwater mining involves the use of enormous industrial bores that drill deep into the aquifer and extract water faster than nature can replenish it. Once the aquifer is pumped dry, the "water hunters," as Barlow calls them, move on to another source.

A disturbing example of groundwater mining can be found in America's breadbasket. The Oglala Aquifer is an enormous underground reservoir that lies beneath eight Midwestern states. Spanning 173,000 square miles, it provides drinking water and irrigation to one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. But as Barlow explains, about 200,000 pumps are now operating on the Oglala Aquifer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The U.S. Geological Survey has determined that parts of the Oglala Aquifer are being drawn down at a rate 14 times faster than nature can replenish it.

The water shortages now being experienced in vast portions of North America are not the result of cyclical drought, Barlow explains, but are a direct result of this kind of unsustainable water usage.

"We are in serious crisis in huge parts of the United States," she says. "There isn't a place that isn't going to have to deal with this problem in the next 20 years."

It's hard to envision Vermont's wells and aquifers running dry, especially in one of the rainiest seasons on record. But it's important to remember that little is known about Vermont's aquifers -- how large they are, how much water they contain, what condition they're in and how quickly they're being depleted.

Jon Groveman is water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC). He points to recent water problems in Williston as a prime example of why Vermont needs to get a "holistic look" at our groundwater resources. In Williston, the rapid growth of subdivisions, particularly those that were never connected to the public water system, has resulted in increasing demands on the aquifers. As a result, many newer homes began experiencing problems with their water, not only during droughts but every summer. Some homeowners have drilled new wells, at a cost of thousands of dollars, while others have pushed to be connected to the municipal water system. Nevertheless, problems remain.

"That's a great example of how we have a lot of water in Vermont, but the aquifer system is really fractured and site-specific," Groveman explains. "In this area of Williston, there's only a limited amount of aquifers in the bedrock and they're being over-tapped right now."

But Barlow points out that future water fights won't just be fought over growth and overuse. A major concern for water-rights activists is the "commodification" of public water supplies by large corporate interests. And water-rights advocates such as Barlow and Groveman say it's crucial that Vermont act quickly to secure this vital resource -- before someone else does.

Steve Springer is president of Water First!, an ad hoc citizens' group in Randolph Center. Several years ago, residents there became concerned about plans by the local bottled water company, Vermont Pure Springs, to draw large quantities of water from a nearby spring. As Springer recalls, the company planned to use 18-wheeled tanker trucks to extract about 150,000 gallons of water per hour -- or about 1 million gallons per week -- from the spring.

Initially, the residents were mostly concerned about issues of public safety and noise, Springer recalls -- the number and size of the tanker trucks being driven up and down the narrow dirt road, the hours of operation, and so on. And after several failed attempts to scale back the plan through the Randolph development review board and the Vermont Environ- mental Court, the residents approached the CEO of Vermont Pure and won some concessions.

However, when the fight was over, Springer says that the controversy raised a "bigger-picture concern" in their minds: What would be the long-term impact of this scale of water extraction on groundwater supplies? "The real issue," Springer emphasizes, "became the water itself." The residents formed the group Water First! which, along with the VNRC, became a driving force in the passage of the groundwater management bill.

It wasn't so much the threats posed by small and moderately sized businesses that concerned lawmakers, according to Representative Steve Adams (R-Hartland), a lead sponsor of H.294. Rather, it was the fear that a large multinational corporation would try to claim Vermont's unprotected water supplies as its own.

"We felt that Vermont was ripe for the picking . . . from whoever came along with the deepest hole and the longest straw," says Adams. "We didn't have any laws on the books, and we spend millions of dollars promoting our brand. Who wouldn't want to put the Vermont seal of quality on their bottled water?"

Adams points out that without adequate protections in place, a large corporate entity could easily set up shop in Vermont. Then, if the Legislature later enacted a groundwater protection law, that company could sue the state under NAFTA or GATT claiming "their" natural resource had been expropriated by the state.

Such concerns are very real, Barlow notes, and not just from the bottled water industry. She says a bigger threat is from the big corporate players -- Veolia, RWE and Suez, also known in the U.S. as United Water -- who are privatizing municipal water systems. All are Fortune 100 companies that have set their sights on North America, Europe and China.

Not surprisingly, China is one of their most alluring markets, as two-thirds of the cities in northern China are now experiencing serious to severe water shortages, and 95 percent of the country's groundwater is now polluted, Barlow notes. She says the water problem has become so severe in Beijing that huge tumbleweeds roll through the city. Several weeks ago, Chinese sandstorms were so bad that traces of the sand showed up in western Canada and the United States.

Interestingly, efforts to privatize public water supplies have faced the stiffest opposition in Latin America and the third world. In 1998, the Bechtel Corporation, with support from the World Bank, privatized the municipal water system in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. Immediately, the company raised water rates by 300 percent -- residents were even assessed a tax for collecting rainwater in rooftop cisterns. The citizens revolted and the water supply was eventually returned to public ownership.

Though Vermonters may believe that such a thing could never happen here, Barlow says it's essential that laws be enacted to ensure that life's most precious resource not fall into corporate hands.

"Water is the last straw," she says. "It's the one that we can't let them breach. That's where we'll make our stand."