Vermonters need to plan for equitable access to clean water

The hydrology of our state’s rivers will change dramatically over the next 30 years. We should fully expect flooding and drought to increase, and we need to adapt now to avoid the worst of it.

BRATTLEBORO — In the face of climate change, Vermont needs a comprehensive, equitable way to ensure access to surface water users for decades to come.

We at the Connecticut River Conservancy believe that a bill under consideration in the Vermont Legislature creates that pathway. If enacted, it will require data collection to understand current surface water usage, provide the state Agency of Natural Resources oversight of any transfers of water between large watersheds, and provide a public process after 2026 to create a permitting system for larger surface water users to make sure that downstream users have access to the water they need while also protecting the living creatures in our streams and rivers.

Vermonters support clean water, and many rely on access to surface water as part of their livelihoods. This bill will ensure that all will have equitable access to that water.

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We are living in a rapidly changing climate. What we have seen occur in the past decade is more intense than the relatively conservative predictions by climate scientists.

We continue to see more runoff, increased flooding, and increased droughts due to reduced snowpack. And, these changes are happening on a very local watershed scale with more intense localized storms and weather patterns.

During the summer of 2018, the White River was well below normal flow levels, even though in southern Vermont we had been inundated with rainstorms almost weekly.

The drought monitor for Vermont right now shows that the northern half of the state has been considered abnormally dry for the past several months. In July and August of 2021, the northern half of the state was in a moderate drought. There was a USDA Secretarial Disaster Declaration for drought in nine counties in Vermont beginning in June 2020.

Simultaneously, we are seeing catastrophic local flooding. Ten counties were considered natural disaster areas in 2019 for flooding. In 2021 Vermont and New Hampshire requested more than $7 million in federal disaster relief funding for infrastructure due to storm damage.

Any research that you do regarding our changing weather patterns bears out the same result.

We must anticipate that the hydrology of our state's rivers will change dramatically over the next 10, 20, 30 years. We should fully expect flooding and drought to increase, and we need to adapt now to avoid the worst of it.

Add to this, increased developmental pressure from climate migrants and recent Covid migrants. Even before the pandemic, Vermont saw a 38 percent increase in out-of-state buyers from 2019 to 2020.

That will create the perfect scenario where our rivers are potentially sucked dry, like what is currently happening to the Ipswich River in Massachusetts, which has running dry every year since 2016, even despite the protections of the Massachusetts Water Management Act, which has been in place since 1986:

The other Connecticut River watershed states - New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut - have some surface-water-use registration or permitting system in place. While Vermont is often the one taking the lead on policy, in this instance we are woefully behind.

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One of the most important aspects of the proposed Vermont legislation is that it allows the state to consider cumulative impacts on a stream.

The few current regulations that deal with surface water withdrawals, such as the snowmaking and some minor agriculture requirements, are limited to considering one surface-water user's impact on the entire volume of a body of water.

There is currently no way to consider the cumulative effect of multiple surface-water users taking water at the same time - especially the impact of taking water during a period of low flow or drought.

The Surface Water Diversion and Transfer Study Group, as required by a 2020 state law, met 10 times in 2021. It did a great deal of research, brought in riparian rights experts and regulators from other states, conducted hours of conversations, and collectively filed a report to the Vermont Legislature.

The group was not required to provide draft legislation, but its members collectively decided that effort would be the best way forward. That legislation is in front of the Senate now and was drafted with considerable discussion and consideration for the many parties that might be affected by it.

In the face of climate change, Vermont needs a comprehensive, equitable way to ensure access to surface water for decades to come. The Vermont Legislature is considering change that creates that pathway.

The Connecticut River Conservancy asks all to support the passage of this legislation - H.466 - to provide equitable access for those who rely on surface waters for their livelihood while protecting the life in our streams.

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