The World Water Crisis and the State of Vermont

The World Water Crisis and the State of Vermont

October 2007


By Dot Helling

Last summer when I applied to become a member of the Blue Planet Run Team, there was no question that it was an opportunity I could not miss if chosen. Not only did the event fulfill my passions for running and traveling, but also met a greater need – to be part of something that could make a real difference in peoples’ lives. As I waited to learn whether or not I would make the team, I studied the mission and projects of the Blue Planet Run (BPR) Foundation. Startlingly, I learned that lack of access to safe drinking water is the number one cause of deaths in developing countries. It takes more than 6,000 lives per day, mostly children, and fills over half of the hospital beds around the world with patients suffering from waterborne illnesses. The statistics are staggering, particularly since this crisis has a viable and inexpensive solution. Just $30 can guarantee one person safe water for life.

I assumed that most of the drinking water problems were in developing countries like Africa, India and parts of South America. I knew that the problems went beyond contamination and access. For instance, when I climbed Kilimanjaro in 2006 and spent time in the village of Mbahe, I learned their water supply was becoming unsafe and limited because of global warming. Shrinking glaciers and reduced snow melt are diminishing the region’s water supply, making it less pure and safe because the quantity of water running off the mountain is much less.

As we traveled around the world this summer, I was surprised to learn just how global water issues are. In Russia, the water was generally unsafe. I never drank it from the tap. In rural areas, it was not always tapped and sometimes it ran out of the faucets dark brown in color or smelling like oil and gas products. The water was not safe to drink from the tap in Mongolia or China either. In the Gobi Desert and other remote parts of Mongolia water was scarce and wells were unreliable and crude. When we ran through the States, there were farmers bemoaning the limited supplies of water in places like California and Utah where water has been diverted from the rivers for irrigation and golf courses. In Kansas an entire town was facing a water crisis because its wells were being contaminated by manufacturing and agricultural runoff. When I returned to Vermont there was a boil water order in Williamstown, a move underway to tap into Montpelier’s springs for bottled water, and reactions to additives in the South Burlington water supply. The issue is affecting us all, whether it is inadequate supplies, access, contamination or privatization.

The BPR odyssey offered me an invaluable eyewitness account of the water crises facing communities around the world. Though I came home exhausted from my global tour, I am truly re-energized. And I am doubly committed to doing what I can to tackle the water crisis by helping Vermont embrace water protection solutions – before it’s too late.


By Johanna Miller

Dot Helling’s first-hand glimpse into the water crises’ unfolding around the world offers a tremendous learning opportunity for Vermonters. At the Vermont Natural Resources Council, we’ve worked for nearly 45 years to safeguard the state’s fresh water. When we heard that one of our committed members was going to put her passion for water protection into action by taking up he baton and running around the world, we wanted to make certain we took the opportunity to learn from this invaluable experience.

That’s because the problems facing communities from Minsk to Moab to Montgomery, Vermont, are not all that different.

In Williston, residents’ taps ran dry because rapid development placed too great a strain on local groundwater supplies. In Randolph, a water bottling company drawing tens of thousands of gallons of water daily degraded a once-healthy trout stream and dried up neighbors’ wells. Most recently, in the rural Northeast Kingdom town of Montgomery, a lack of rain triggered water shortages significant enough to place the community on a boil water order and force the town to truck in water for customers whose taps ran dry.

As these and other examples demonstrate, access to clean, abundant fresh water is no longer a given in Vermont. Because Vermont remains one of the last states in the Northeast without a program to manage and protect groundwater — our primary drinking water source — our groundwater is vulnerable to depletion and contamination.

A recent proposal to tap a spring in East Montpelier for a water bottling operation has, for many, intensified the conversation about how to best manage and utilize community water supplies and highlighted the need for state action.

Little is known about the potential public costs, benefits or consequences of the ‘Montpelier Springs’ water bottling operation. But an operation which may involve a withdrawal of 500,000 gallons a day would undoubtedly have an impact on local water supplies. Understanding these impacts and addressing the public interest in allowing a private company to profit off the sale of a public resource — water — will only be possible if Vermont adopts a comprehensive water protection program.

The Legislature is currently considering enacting such a program for Vermont. A governor-appointed task force is expected to make recommendations to the Legislature in January 2008 on a groundwater protection program, including whether to declare groundwater a public trust resource — a framework which essentially puts public interest in water before private interest.

Decisions made in the Legislature this year will likely determine how Vermont communities — from Montgomery to Montpelier and beyond — protect groundwater resources for years to come.

Johanna Miller is the Outreach Director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
Learn much more about this issue in a presentation by Blue Planet runner Dot Helling and Vermont Natural Resources Council Water Program Director Jon Groveman at 7 p.m., October 23, 2007, at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier. Refreshments will be provided. For more info, call 802-223-2328.

Photo credit: Chris Emerick

NOTE: These articles were first published in the Montpelier Bridge.