• The Berlin Pond decision
    August 28,2014

    As commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, one of my primary jobs is to ensure that our water is safe to drink, including the water drawn from Berlin Pond.

    In Vermont, we are lucky to have high-quality water supplies. Many of us are served by public water supply systems that draw clean water from groundwater wells or from surface waters such as lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. Through incrementally more stringent state and federal laws, the good work of the operators of the public water supply systems, and monitoring and oversight by my department, we have eliminated outbreaks of waterborne illnesses that used to be associated with drinking from public supplies.

    It was not always so. In the early 20th century, Vermonters and many American communities faced the risk of outbreaks of waterborne disease such as cholera. In response, the federal Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1974 and has been strengthened over the years. For example, public water supply systems that rely upon surface waters, such as Montpelier, are required to install advanced filtration controls, primarily to address the threat of microbial contamination that is associated with the presence of wildlife, pet waste, failed septic systems, and runoff from roads and parking lots.

    The Safe Drinking Water Act gave states the option of implementing the national standards to protect the drinking water supplies. Vermont chose to take this option, and so the Department of Environmental Conservation enforces the federal drinking water standards for our state.

    Berlin Pond is a source of drinking water that is surrounded by homes, farms and roads. The pond draws people who walk, exercise dogs, drive, bicycle and run on the surrounding roads. All of these activities have the potential to contribute contaminants that threaten public health if those contaminants are not removed through treatment. The pond is also accessible to wildlife, and those birds and animals may transmit human pathogens in their waste or by dying in the pond.

    For these reasons, and to comply with the surface water rules, Montpelier built a new, highly advanced treatment system in 2000. This system effectively and consistently inactivates disease-causing organisms (pathogens) through a combination of filtration and disinfection. 

    Recently, after considering petitions filed by the city of Montpelier and a group calling themselves Citizens to Protect Berlin Pond, I accepted the recommendations of scientific and public health experts in my department and ruled that Berlin Pond should remain open to nonmotorized recreation. Some have asked why my decision did not go further, prohibiting all recreation on Berlin Pond. As commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, I am charged with making decisions based on science and law. Vermont law does not support restricting the use of surface water without a scientific basis, nor should it.

    The department will continue to restrict the use of boats with internal combustion motors, and will expand on that existing restriction to limit other uses that could present the risk of a significant oil or gasoline spill, such as snowmobiling or driving on the pond during the winter. The spill of petroleum products associated with these activities, while a relatively small risk, would present a challenge for the Montpelier water system operators, and so a restriction on these activities is warranted.

    Allowing Vermonters to kayak, canoe, fish or even swim on the pond will not, however, affect the quality of Montpelier’s drinking water supply. These activities will not add materially to the levels or types of microbial contaminants in the pond. Further, Montpelier’s drinking water treatment system is more than adequate to remove the additional microbial contaminants that may result from increased recreational activity on the pond.

    Finally, boating, fishing and swimming on our shared waters are protected uses under Vermont’s rules on use of public water and our water quality standards. While the department’s predominant goal is and was to ensure that Montpelier’s drinking water remains clean, safe and healthy, these other laws reflect a widely shared value in Vermont that our lakes, ponds, rivers and streams are a shared resource to be enjoyed.

    I am encouraged that so many residents feel strongly about this issue. It is this type of passion for clean water, coupled with scientific data and health trends, that drove the creation of so many of our federal and state environmental laws. I remain committed to working with the citizens of Montpelier and other surrounding communities to protect our waters.

    David K. Mears is commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

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