S.304 – Groundwater Withdrawal Permit Program

This bill:

Sets up a permitting program for large withdrawals.

Commercial/industrial sources report starting at 20,000 gallons per day averaged monthly.

Commercial/industrial sources must get a permit to remove 57,600 gpd (40 gallons/minute for 24 hours)

Vast majority of farms are exempt from the permitting program; only large farms withdrawing 57,600 gpd must report. They report to the Agency of Agriculture.

Declares Vermont’s groundwater to be a public trust resource. (Surface water, ie lakes and ponds, already is a public trust resource). Designation will require state to manage groundwater in the best interest of all Vermonters.  The bill clarifies that in order to have standing for legal action you must have a particularized interest. And it further clarifies that the Public Trust cause of action can only be brought in relation to groundwater quantity issues.

Permits required are granted by ANR. Those seeking permits have to show their withdrawal will not have an adverse effect on other, existing water supplies, significant wetlands or Vermont water quality standards. They must provide an estimate of how much water if any will not be returned to the watershed, and they must demonstrate they are taking a safe yield. They must show that it is consistent with state, regional and town plans and meet state policy to manage groundwater as a shared resource for the benefit of all citizens of the state; other requirements. Getting a permit gives an entity the presumption of compliance with the public trust doctrine.

Uses are prioritized. Under the bill, public/domestic water and agriculture are given preference in water management in times of water shortages.

Public involvement. Those seeking permits have to alert all property owners deemed to be within the zone of influence. The applicant must hold an informational meeting to describe the project and hear comments before the application is formally reviewed by ANR. This is above and beyond the public participation requirements of other ANR permit programs.  Extremely large withdrawals, those over 340,000 gpd, must also go through Act 250, which has a public involvement component.

Exemptions. Vermont homeowners, public water systems, including fire districts, all but the largest farms (see above), and closed loop geothermal heat pumps, are exempt from this bill.

Analysis: This bill brings Vermont up to par with other states — including our New England neighbors — that have comprehensive groundwater protection programs in place. At least 24 states, for instance, have in some form or another put groundwater in the public trust and even more regulate large groundwater withdrawals. In many ways, the bill is modeled on the New Hampshire groundwater protection program. Vermont’s program has a ke yplanning component that encourages local communities to plan for their future development with an eye toward their groundwater use. The bill passed overwhelmingly in both the Senate and House and did not go to a conference committee. It is expected to be signed by the Governor.

Read the House and Senate passed bill here.

House Vote: 125-12

Senate Vote: 24-3