Water, it seems, is everywhere.
We drink it daily, bathe in it, inhale it.
It covers two-thirds of our planet’s surface and comprises two-thirds of our bodies.

It’s something we discover and rediscover throughout our lives. Well before our second birthday we pad around in ankle-deep water. By age six we’ve discovered the fun of squirt guns and water balloons. Sometime before we move out of elementary school we’re diving into lakes and pools, using water to escape the summer heat. In winter we skate on frozen water, ski on ice crystals, and scrape frozen moisture off our windshields.

Water is all around us, most obviously in our lakes, rivers, and precipitation. Our state has 808 lakes and ponds and more than 7,000 miles of rivers and streams. The atmosphere typically replenishes Vermont with 41 inches of water annually.

As ubiquitous as it is, we may not realize just how much water influences our lives in terms of geography, history, and community. Water does more than grow our crops, generate power, and provide recreation. It defines our existence: water has determined where our towns are, where we do business, where we live, and the location of most of our roads.

Nor may we fully understand the challenges before us as we strive to leave our waters clean for future generations of Vermonters.


Water has defined Vermont. Most of our western border is formed by Lake Champlain, which was born out of a warm sea about 550 million years ago. Fossils and coral reefs attest to the marine environment of long ago. To the east, glacial lakes occupied what is now the state’s boundary. With the last advances of the ice age, the scouring of glaciers shaped the Connecticut River Valley. Glaciers and the persistent erosive force of water also formed Vermont’s interior. Thick layers of glacial ice carved into mountains, the freezing and thawing of ice prying rock fragments from their hold.

When the first humans came to what would eventually become Vermont, lakes and rivers provided access to the land, so early settlements developed along natural waterways. Western Abenaki, who lived in villages between Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River, depended on crops such as corn, beans, and squash for much of their diet; their villages were typically on or near fertile floodplains.

By the 1760s, European settlement of our part of the New World was well underway, with villages typically following river corridors. Settlers first cut trees in the floodplains, and water powered mills. To improve transportation, one of the first canals in America opened in 1802 on the Connecticut River. Another human-made waterway, the Champlain Canal, connected Lake Champlain to the Hudson River two decades later. It wasn’t until the 1830s that railroads were used to move stone and lumber.

At about the same time, the alleged medicinal properties of Vermont’s waters began attracting guests to the state. Historian Beth Smith summarized the mineral springs trade in Clarendon by noting, “These springs have brought to the area more fame and fortune than all other resources combined. For nearly half the year the narrow valley buzzed with activity and the Clarendon House was the center of it all. During the 1840s and 50s business at the springs boomed.”


Even before Vermont became a state its elected officials concerned themselves with water issues — at least to keep a valuable source of food available for residents. The republic’s assembly in 1787 passed an act to ban devices such as weirs that totally prohibited the movement of fish in streams.

By the mid-19th Century water quality in Vermont had begun to decline. Sediment laden run-off clouded surface waters, sawdust from mills clogged water corridors, and log runs tore up riverbeds. Naturalist George Perkins Marsh, observing environmental degradation at home in Vermont and abroad, wrote in his 1864 book Man and Nature that “the destructive agency of man becomes more and more energetic and unsparing as he advances in civilization, until the impoverishment, with which his exhaustion of the natural resources of the soil is threatening him, at last awakens him to the necessity of preserving what is left, if not of restoring what has been wantonly wasted.”

Forty years later, geologist T. Nelson Dale wrote, “Because of the vitiation of water, owing to the building of towns, as in the case of Otter Creek below Rutland and Proctor, streams are no longer safe to drink as amply demonstrated by the prevalence of typhoid at Middlebury.”

The Vermont Legislature took a stab at curbing water pollution in 1892 by passing a law granting the State Board of Health the power to regulate certain uses of water. This statute, like other early laws designed to clean the state’s waters, was largely ineffective, as Vermonters continued to use rivers as an inexpensive means of removing sewage and industrial waste.

The concerns expressed by Marsh and Dale became widespread among Vermonters by the late 1960s. State and federal efforts to improve water quality accelerated in the early 1970s (view Water Protection timeline), highlighted by Congress’s passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. The goal of the Clean Water Act was — and remains — restoration and maintenance of the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of all surface waters, and the law sought to make all rivers fishable and swimmable. To meet this challenge, our nation clamped down on industrial polluters and appropriated billions of dollars to construct and later upgrade sewage treatment plants. In Vermont alone, approximately $512 million in state and federal grant and loan funds have gone to municipalities for wastewater treatment.

The Safe Drinking Water Act established health-based water quality standards for 85 potential contaminants. To ensure compliance, the monitoring and reporting of water quality results is required for all public community water systems. These systems must be able to provide disinfection, and all water system operators must be certified to manage a water system. During the past 30 years, public water systems in Vermont have received $112 million in state and federal grant and loan funds for system construction and improvement.

Vermonters have been even more aggressive in enacting laws and regulations to protect the state’s waters. The Vermont Legislature during the past 30 years has passed bills to ban phosphorus detergent, protect high-elevation streams, manage stormwater, and close unlined landfills. Vermont was one of the first states to have a Nonpoint Source Pollution Management Program approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and our state has been a national leader in removing potential sources of mercury contamination. Our partnership with New York and Quebec in the joint management of Lake Champlain through the Lake Champlain Basin Program is an international model of cooperation.


Although Vermont’s waters today are far healthier than 30 years ago, problems remain. More than 120 streams, ponds, and river sections are classified as “impaired waters,” meaning they do not meet one or more of Vermont’s Water Quality Standards. Acid rain continues to damage three dozen lakes to the point that their biological diversity has diminished. Atmospheric deposition of mercury from Midwest power plants threatens the quality of the food chain statewide.

Our waters also suffer from local sources of pollution, primarily in the form of nonpoint source pollution — pollution that runs off the land rather than out of a pipe. These sources of pollution include leaking septic systems, phosphorus run-off from farmland, and urban stormwater run-off contaminated by automotive fluids, lawn chemicals, pet waste, and sediment.

Our complex technologies that measure and assess these activities also present new challenges. For example, water quality samples are now routinely measured in parts per billion as science pushes the detection limits of contaminants. This challenges our ability to determine health risks and environmental impacts from these minute measurements.

Water quantity has also emerged as a concern recently. Vermonters use nearly 2 billion gallons of water per day for domestic, industrial, commercial, mining, and agricultural activities. Hydro and thermo-electric water uses, including the circulation of cooling water at Vermont Yankee, exceed 17 billion gallons per day. The drought of 2001 caused several hydro stations to shut down, and 18 community water systems reported water shortages.

This report will examine many of the water quality challenges before us. Among the topics in the following pages are Vermonters’ efforts to ensure safe drinking water, the holistic approach of watershed planning, the cost of clean water, and the science of fluvial geomorphology.

From the glaciers that scoured Vermont centuries ago to the streams in our backyards today, water has shaped our state and our lives. Understanding and respecting the importance of water will improve our lives and the health of Vermont’s natural resources.

Water in Our WorldSafe Drinking WaterCost of Clean WaterWatershedsGeomorphology/BuffersDamsAirWildlifeWasteForestsProgram PagesLetter from the Secretary

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