Drinking Water Vs. Recreation: Striving For A Compromise On Berlin Pond

May 26, 2017

For the past few years, there has been a showdown over conflicting uses of central Vermont’s Berlin Pond. Now, state and local officials are working on finding a compromise.

The city of Montpelier has been drawing its drinking water from Berlin Pond for the past century. And for most of that time, recreational use of the pond was forbidden by the city, which bought up nearly all of the land around the pond. According to City Manager Bill Fraser, a state health order granted in 1927 gave the city the authority to manage the use of the pond.

But that authority was challenged a few years ago. And the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state, not the city, has final say over how the pond can be used. So for the past few years, fishing and non-motorized recreation has been allowed.

Berlin fisherman Allen Kentner knows the rules.

“No internal combustion engines – nothing that runs off gas or any of that. Great. That’s good. That’s the way it should be. That’s less problems with contamination," he says. "Having a suitable access? That would be nice."

Kentner is fishing from a spot where a Berlin town road abuts the pond. But he might get improved access to the pond soon. Berlin is working with Vermont Fish and Wildlife to build an access area this summer, according to Commissioner Louis Porter.

Boaters currently launch into Berlin Pond between a guardrail and a dry hydrant along Mirror Lake Road, in Berlin.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"We are always interested in working with towns or anybody else who wants to provide public use to public waters," says Porter. "And that’s our role in this."

By "this" he means talks about how to balance the need for safe drinking water in Montpelier with the public's right to access the state's surface waters for fishing and other recreational activities.

Ture Nelson is select board chairman in Berlin, which voted overwhelmingly to build a recreational access area to the pond on town-owned property. It turned out that parcel was too swampy to be suitable for the project. So now the town is working with Fish and Wildlife to build an access using other public right-of-ways.

"The only thing that people want is low-impact, light recreational use," he says. "We’re talking canoes. We’re talking kayaks. We’re talking, you know, fishing."

Although Interstate 89 runs close by one end of Berlin Pond, the more remote end of the pond is tranquil.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Meanwhile, voters in Montpelier passed a charter change that, if approved by the Legislature, would return control of the pond back to the city. And the city would like to go back to the days when the pond was closed to recreation.

"We’re not trying to be alarmists and we’re not trying to be difficult," says City Manager Bill Fraser. "But we have an obligation to the health and safety of the people that we serve water to."

Berlin Pond supplies drinking water to the city of Montpelier, as well as properties on the Barre-Montpelier Road, in Berlin, and the Central Vermont Medical Center.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Fraser says the city’s water treatment plant wasn’t designed to filter out parasites such as giardia and cryptosporidium that might be introduced by people using the pond. Or, more specifically, people defecating in or around the pond.

"We’re required to protect our source and, in fact, have to file a 'source protection plan' of what we will do to protect our source," Fraser explains. "And for years, our source protection has been: nobody is allowed on the pond … And when the plant was designed, it was with that system in mind. So it was based on the water quality at that time, and the assumption that this would continue."

The Legislature did not take up the charter amendment this session. Instead, lawmakers asked if Montpelier and the towns around the pond could work with the Agency of Natural Resources to find a compromise.

Even on a weekday afternoon, Mirror Lake Road is lined with vehicles belonging to anglers and paddlers.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Nelson says he’s optimistic they can come to an agreement. He adds that although he lives in Berlin, he’s on Montpelier’s water system.

"I, as much as anybody, looking out for myself, want clean drinking water," he says.

Lawmakers have given the municipalities and the agency until the Legislature reconvenes in January to come up with a solution.

This week, at the group’s second meeting, Fraser presented a report stating it will cost $750,000 to $1 million to upgrade Montpelier’s water treatment plant to handle possible contamination by the giardia and cryptosporidium parasites. And he asked if the state would be willing to foot the bill.

That issue will be part of the continuing negotiations.