Case studies

Water Solutions

Case 21: Establishing Limits on Groundwater Withdrawals for the Public Good

Introduction

In Vermont, a bipartisan group of legislators co-sponsored legislation to protect that state’s groundwater – a Commons on which the entire state depends. The legislation, approved in 2008, created a new permitting program for large-scale withdrawals and declared the water resource to be a public trust. The Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) had long pressed for a state-managed program to help safeguard the state’s groundwater resources – the fresh, cold water that flows beneath our feet. After a long and hard effort, VNRC helped lead a successful effort to convince the Legislature and Governor to remove Vermont from its precarious position as one of the last states in the nation to adequately protect this increasingly valuable natural resource. ********* In June 2008, the state of Vermont enacted a comprehensive groundwater protection program, effectively helping to curb the unchecked water consumption and contamination by homes, farms, and businesses that was threatening this life-sustaining resource. Nearly 66 percent of Vermont’s population depends on groundwater for their drinking water supply. Groundwater, and its interconnection with surface water, provides an essential function by recharging Vermont’s rivers, lakes, wetlands and streams, thereby helping to maintain surface water quality and support habitat for fish and other aquatic species. With the declaration of groundwater as a public trust, the nearly two-thirds of Vermonters who depend on groundwater for their drinking water supply have a law in place that will help protect drinking water from overconsumption, depletion and privatization. Manhole coverVermont had no previous legislation limiting groundwater takings. Starting in 2010, the law establishes a permit system for water withdrawals of over 57,600 gallons a day. The citizen push for this groundwater protection and conservation measure came from the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) and won strong bipartisan support. The law authorizes the gathering of critical information about who is using the groundwater, in what quantity, and for what purpose, and assesses this information against data collected in state maps of groundwater supplies. The most contentious aspect of the bill was whether to declare groundwater a public trust resource. Another contentious issue in the bill was ranking priorities for groundwater use, giving drinking water and small-scale farming priority over commercial use during water shortages. Exceptions and grandfathered uses are included for farms, water utilities, fire districts and some geothermal systems. The law ultimately did declare groundwater to be a “public trust resource.” Proponents argued that this public trust designation was critical to create an obligation for the state to manage its groundwater in the public interest. The legal determination clarifies that groundwater is not owned not by one person, but by all, and that the public interest in this resource takes precedence over private interests. Strong resistance came from segments of the agricultural community, in particular large dairy interests, who strongly resisted limitations on their use of water. To avoid pushback from the bottled water industry and other large-scale users, VNRC convened several negotiations among the stakeholders to craft a protection program that would manage the resource. While the bill goes a long way to safeguard Vermont’s primary drinking water resource, advocates for water as a public trust pledge to continue to press for strong rules to implement the legislation and other safeguards.

Questions

  • What are priority uses for groundwater for the public good? How should these priorities be ranked and decided upon?
  • What coalition in your community could be formed to pass legislation guiding groundwater use?

Notes and Links