MONTPELIER - Lawmakers studying legislation that would protect Vermont's ground water heard dire warnings yesterday from a Canadian author about a worldwide shortage of fresh water that she said could worsen exponentially in the coming years.
"It's going to surpass energy as a national security issue for the United States," said Maude Barlow, an Ottawa-based environmentalist and author of the books "Blue Gold" and "Blue Covenant."
"There are alternative forms of energy, but we haven't yet found an alternative to water," Barlow told a joint hearing of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee and the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.
The Senate has passed, and the House panel is soon to take up, legislation that would declare the ground water under Vermont a public trust.
That's a legal doctrine that the legislation's backers say could provide protections for the state's underground aquifers essentially by restricting individual users from sucking them dry.
Barlow lauded the Senate for passing the bill and said she hopes the House will follow suit.
But she said that even with a new law in place, Vermont might be targeted by litigation brought under the North American Fair Trade Agreement saying the state's efforts to limit water withdrawals interfere with international trade in bottled water.
"The bottled water companies are everywhere in New England," with large companies like Nestlé looking to buy up smaller ones, as Nestlé already has done with Poland Springs, Barlow said.
She said she had met recently with lawmakers in Maine and New Hampshire, where many local communities are looking for ways to protect their local water supplies.
The Vermont ground water protection bill is drawing opposition from the manufacturers' lobby Associated Industries of Vermont and other groups.
Associated Industries vice president William Driscoll said that his group and its allies believe that public trust doctrine applied to ground water could lay groundwork for many new lawsuits without advancing Vermont's ability to protect its groundwater to a significant degree.
Citing that opposition, Representative David Deen, Democrat of Westminster and chairman of the House committee, urged supporters of the bill to contact their legislators and lobby for it.
As passed by the Senate, the bill:
Declares Vermont's ground water to be a public trust, similar to its lakes and rivers.
Senator Virginia Lyons, Democrat of Chittenden and chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said the idea of a public trust as applied to a lake is that someone with a home on the shore can use the lake, but can't take all the water from it.
Sets up new permitting and reporting requirements. Commercial and industrial users would have to report withdrawals of more than 20,000 gallons per day and obtain a state permit for those larger than 57,600 per day.
Exempts all but the largest farms, which would have to report to the Agency of Agriculture if they withdraw more than 50,000 gallons per day.
Allows courts to impose attorney's fees on the loser of a public trust lawsuit, a measure whose backers said would discourage such suits.
Sets up a new permitting system that would require those seeking permits to show their water withdrawal will not have an adverse effect on state water quality standards, wetlands, or other users.