Water ownership question leads to debate

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(Host) Who owns the water? It’s a simple question that’s led to a very complex legal debate.

Surface waters in Vermont – lakes and streams -belong to the public at large.

But spring water, or water stored under ground, is usually considered private property.

A plan for a commercial water bottling operation in Montpelier has raised the question of whether ground water should also be public.

VPR’s John Dillon has the story:

(Dillon) On a steep hillside north of the capital, a spring bubbles out of the ground. A century ago, this spring and others up the hill supplied many homes and business in the city.

Montpelier eventually built its own water system. But for years the spring was used by residents who didn’t like the chlorinated taste of the city water.

Now a private company has bought the springs and surrounding land. The Montpelier Spring Water Company hopes to tap the lucrative market for bottled water.

In a business plan given to city officials, the company projects sales growth from $9 million in the first year of operation to $25 million in the third year.

Company CEO Daniel Antonovich said he didn’t want to talk about the plan until it’s further along in the permit process. But the proposal is generating plenty of discussion in Montpelier

(Groveman) “It’s the public’s water, it’s not the developer’s water.”

(Dillon) John Groveman is a lawyer and water specialist with the Vermont Natural Resources Council. He says the issue of who owns the water is highlighted by the way the plan was submitted to the city.

(Groveman) “Because the developer is not viewing the water as a public resource that belongs to all Vermonters, he’s being protective and secretive about it. And that’s just not right.”

(Dillon) Groveman’s environmental group is pushing for a change in state law that would classify ground water as “public trust” property. That’s already the case with surface water, and even for land that’s been filled in on lakes and ponds.

In 1989 case, the Vermont Supreme Court recognized the public trust doctrine. The court told a railroad company that its filled land on the Burlington waterfront belonged to the public at large.

Vermont is blessed with abundant groundwater supplies. But Groveman says there are limits.

(Groveman) “We need to recognize that this is a finite resource that we need to protect in the public interest. And any use of it has to be viewed through the prism of what’s the public’s interest in this resource that’s irreplaceable and what’s the impact going to be if you let people use it extract it or take it away.”

(Dillon) A state committee is looking at the question of whether groundwater should be considered public property. For now, state law basically says an owner of a spring can’t use the water in a way that harms his neighbors.

Paul Gillies is a Montpelier lawyer who recently wrote an article on water law.

(Gillies) “Springs are the property of the landowner to the extent that there is a reasonable use and that the rights of the neighboring properties are not affected adversely.”

(Dillon) Gillies says applying the public trust doctrine to groundwater is an “exciting legal idea.” He says the state supreme court may have left some room to expand the public trust doctrine in its decision on the Burlington waterfront.

(Gillies) “It did suggest that the public rights in water is not limited and there might be a way of elaborating that idea to other sources of water.”

(Dillon) Groveman of the Vermont Natural Resources Council says state law in New Hampshire recognizes a public right in groundwater.

Meanwhile, the Montpelier Springs Water Company needs a state permit if it plans to withdraw more than 50,000 gallons-a-day.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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