Allen Gilbert
WORCESTER, VT (2007-06-06)

(HOST) Plans by a private company to tap a local spring outside of Montpelier has got commentator Allen Gilbert thinking about the value of water.

(GILBERT) Do you get your water from a spring or a well? A lot of Vermonters do. Water in Vermont is ubiquitous and, for many, free. We take water for granted. But there's increasing interest in this resource. And the interest is being driven by profit.

Other parts of the country have been living with the economic value of water for years. In the Southwest, for example, there are huge fights over water rights. In the upper Midwest, there's been conflict over plans to ship water - by tanker -- from the Great Lakes.

Water is a resource that some believe will eventually become as valuable as oil, or even more.

If that's the case, then Vermont could be sitting on a veritable gusher. And that's why there's interest in commercializing Vermont's water.

Some private water bottling plants have already been established in the state. But new ventures are starting up. One of the latest is just outside Montpelier, only a couple miles from the Statehouse. The Montpelier Spring Water Company wants to tap a spring and pipe the water to a neighboring town, where a processing plant will be built.

Promoters have made various development arguments in support of the venture. The company will create up to one hundred and twenty new jobs. The area's tax base will grow. There will be little environmental impact.

Not everyone agrees with that last point, however -- that there'll be little environmental impact. Water is a community resource, environmentalists say. How can it be owned, bought, or sold? Legal issues are unsettled. And once water is removed and exported from a watershed, it's gone, rather than used locally.

The central issue in this debate is whether water is a public trust resource and whether its extraction should be regulated. The Legislature is studying the issue. It's complicated, and any decisions will have far-reaching implications.

More than half of Vermonters rely on springs and wells for drinking. For the most part, the water is high-quality. Drink Vermont spring water and then chlorinated city water? One's a homemade tollhouse cookie, the other a store-bought "chips galore." You can tell the difference immediately.

The challenge facing Vermont is protecting this important resource - from contamination as well as from large-scale, unregulated export.

Mapping groundwater sources would help in avoiding contamination, but it's expensive. Levying an extraction tax on water taken for profit would recognize the value of the resource, but such a tax would likely be fought bitterly by private water bottling companies.

For now, Montpelier city officials are reserving judgment on the plans to tap the well-known local spring. I find it ironic that one of the company's promoters is a former state agriculture commissioner. Could water one day become a major food export of the state? The Vermont cachet is worth a lot in a competitive market that features products from other states and abroad.

And down the road, could Vermont run out of water someday -- A sort of "peak water" phenomenon?

This could be an explosive issue in the coming years.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.