Swimming in City's Drinking Water Allowed, Vt. Officials Decide

Berlin Pond has been at the center of long-running disputes over recreational access

(NECN: Jack Thurston, Montpelier, Vt.) - Vermont's Department of Environmental Conservation has said boating, swimming, and fishing will be allowed on Berlin Pond. The pond provides the drinking water for Montpelier, the state's capital. "There have been very robust discussions," said David Mears, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, describing a long-running series of passionate disputes over recreational access to the water.

Montpelier had long blocked folks from entering the pond, saying it needed to protect the water it drinks. That changed with a 2012 Vermont Supreme Court ruling that said regulating water use was the state's responsibility, not the city's.

Earlier this year, a group called Citizens to Protect Berlin Pond petitioned the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to bar people from playing in the body of water. The city of Montpelier specifically asked for a ban on motorized vehicles, ice fishing shanties, and petroleum products on the water.

Mears announced Thursday that the department plans to enact rules that would bar internal combustion engines on the water, but allow the other recreational activities. He said activities like kayaking or fishing from a canoe are not a big threat to the water's safety. Mears also pointed out that he and his family drink Montpelier’s water, and that the safety of the city’s drinking supply is constantly monitored at the city's handling plant.

"We would, of course--if it was determined if all of a sudden we started seeing a trend towards an increase in contaminant levels in the drinking water system for Montpelier--we'd step back and reevaluate," Mears told reporters.

Mayor John Hollar of Montpelier told New England Cable News he is disappointed in the decision, saying he wishes the restrictions were stronger. "Frankly, it just creates unnecessary risk for us," Hollar said.

Hollar argued the move opens the doors for more access, meaning more activity that could stir up or contaminate the drinking water. "There are plenty of places to fish and recreate on ponds around central Vermont," Hollar told NECN. "This was one unique place where there wasn't really any human activity. I think it's a loss for us."

An attorney for the Department of Environmental Conservation said the public will have a chance to weigh in on this decision as part of the rulemaking process.

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