Public’s right to play in Montpelier’s drinking water source to be decided

Berlin Pond is the source of the Capital City's drinking water. It's accessibility for recreational uses has caused a rift between the city and town. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Berlin Pond is the source of the Capital City’s drinking water. It’s accessibility for recreational use has caused a rift among advocates. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

BERLIN — Nestled in the hills south of Montpelier, Berlin Pond is an attraction for a variety of recreational activities.

Dog-walkers, runners, cyclists and birdwatchers stroll along a network of quiet dirt roads circling the pond. Anglers cast lines from the pond’s bushy shore or from their boats in the pond’s center.

But the city of Montpelier has fenced off much of this 260-acre pond with “no trespass” signs banning fishing and hunting. That’s because the city is seeking to protect its only drinking water supply that was, until 2012, sheltered from many recreational activities.

The pond’s water flows downhill through a water filtration plant that removes and treats a variety of contaminants before it quenches the thirst of more than 14,000 daily consumers in the state capital, Berlin town and Central Vermont Medical Center.

What the plant cannot filter out is petroleum – which comes from spilling gasoline during a variety of recreational activities, such as drilling holes in the ice for fishing or driving a motor boat or snowmobile across the pond.

And the only way to know if this toxic chemical enters the drinking water is when consumers smell it or become ill, experts say.

“You would smell it in a glass of water,” said Robert Dufresne, an engineer who helped design Montpelier’s Water Filtration Plant before it was completed in 2000.

He said a gallon of gas could permanently contaminate 1.5 million gallons of water.

That’s why the city of Montpelier and a citizen’s group are petitioning the state to restrict access to the pond.

“To upgrade the plant to filter out petroleum is extraordinarily expensive,” Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser said. “Our options are somewhat limited.”

Shortly after the city first tapped the pond for drinking water, it has purchased land around it and posted no trespass signs in order to lower the risk of contamination.

But in 2009, an avid sportsman protested these restrictions by kayaking on the closed pond, claiming the “pond’s ‘no trespassing’ signs were no longer valid, and that the pond was public,” according to court records. After a long legal battle with the city, the Vermont Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that only the state can close the pond, thus opening it up to unprecedented recreation.

Now the Department of Environmental Conservation is considering two petitions, one from Montpelier to ban petroleum-based activities and another citizen petition to bar all recreational activity. A decision whether to restrict access to the pond is expected by mid-August, according to the department.

But the sportsman who started the debate is continuing his push to keep the pond open.

“None of us went up there lightly,” said Rick Sanborn, owner of R&L Archery in Barre, about his act of civil disobedience in 2009. “It all comes down to it’s a public body of water.”

He says every resident has a constitutional right to enjoy Vermont’s water bodies. And he said paddling a boat on the shallow water causes no more disturbance than the power of wind pushing waves against the pond’s shoreline.

There are more than 1.5 billion gallons of water in the pond, and Sanborn said a gallon spill would be insignificant. Not only that, he said true anglers will avoid spilling anything that will ward off fish.

He said unless someone proves human contact with the pond is a threat to public health, the state is bound by the Constitution to keep it open to paddlers and people who want to fish.

“How are we going to damage it?” Sanborn said. “Show me the science. You cannot show me the science that this is bad.”

But Citizens to Protect Berlin Pond, a group seeking to ban all recreational activity on the pond, says petroleum contamination is not the only issue.

They say watercraft could carry invasive species from other water bodies, such as zebra mussels, which would cling to and clog to the water plant’s intake pipe in the pond. They also say more recreational activity will stir up soil on the pond’s shallow bottom, requiring that drinking water be treated with more chlorine.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is supporting an access point along the Berlin-owned section of the pond. Commissioner Louis Porter said the department will not move forward on the project until DEC responds to the petitions.

“We’re certainly interested in working with Berlin on helping with access if that’s the way the petition ends up,” he said. “The conversation with Berlin predated the second petition” to ban all access to the water.

John Herrick

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