Energy & Environment

New law requires farmers and others to keep records of surface water withdrawals

An irrigation line feeds water to a patch of cantaloupe on Bunt Rock Farm in Huntington. Photo courtesy of Justin Rich

As the climate changes in Vermont and precipitation becomes less predictable, lawmakers are creating a record of how much water is regularly extracted from the state’s streams and rivers.

As part of that effort, farmers — particularly berry and vegetable growers, who rely most often on irrigation — are now required to begin measuring their water withdrawals. Recording and reporting requirements for other sectors begin next year. 

State officials plan to eventually install a permitting process for water withdrawals based on the data they collect.

On average, Vermont is expected to become wetter in the coming years, but climate change may aggravate the swing between wet and dry periods and cause more extreme instances of both. 

The state has experienced both abnormally wet and dry periods in the last year alone. In the last several weeks, much of eastern Vermont has started weathering what the U.S. Drought Monitor calls a “moderate drought.”

A new law, Act 135, passed during the most recent legislative session, requires industries and individuals to send reports to state agencies when they divert a certain magnitude of water from rivers and streams. The requirement for farmers kicked in July 1. 

Ski resorts, which extract large amounts of water for snowmaking, have already been reporting their usage. But state officials and lawmakers confronted the issue more broadly in 2019, when Killington ski area asked the Agency of Natural Resources to issue a permit for snowmaking that would have allowed the business to transfer water from one watershed to another

“That was a wake-up call for Vermont, recognizing that there are places in the state that have a deficit of water for their water uses, and other places that have potential for sharing water out of its watershed,” said Rep. Kari Dolan, D-Waitsfield, who co-sponsored the bill. 

It prompted a desire for more data about when and how water is used throughout the state, part of an effort to increase certainty that water will flow steadily when businesses, farmers and aquatic species need it. Other states already have processes in place that guide water withdrawal and transfers, Dolan said. 

The data will be rolled into a new surface water withdrawal permitting program, which the state’s Agency of Natural Resources must roll out by July 1, 2026, the law stipulates.

Farmers are required to record their usage throughout this season and begin reporting their withdrawals to the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets starting Jan. 15. Ryan Patch, agriculture, climate and land use policy manager for the Agency of Agriculture, is trying to spread the word among farmers now. 

“This, unfortunately, is growers’ busiest time of year,” he said. He’s working with the University of Vermont’s Extension Program to ensure farmers have the knowledge and technical assistance they need to keep the records. 

The law applies to farmers who withdraw more than 10,000 gallons of surface water within a 24-hour period or 150,000 gallons over any 30-day period. 

The state defines surface water as: “rivers, streams, creeks, brooks, reservoirs, ponds, lakes, and all bodies of surface waters that are contained within, flow through, or border upon the State or any portion of it.” It doesn’t include groundwater, artificial water bodies and certain off-stream ponds. 

Around 244 farms irrigate using surface water on 785 acres of croplands, Patch said, citing the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2017 and 2018. That represents a relatively small percentage of all crop and pastureland in the state, he said. 

“We'll get some better data this year that will help refine some of those figures in understanding where the withdrawals are happening,” he said. 

Wary of overwatering their crops, farmers typically keep a close eye on the amount of water they’re using. The record-keeping and reporting will be new, however, Patch said. 

The law does not require farmers to give a precise measurement of the water they’re taking from rivers and streams, which often comes from metering systems that are  expensive for farmers to install. Instead, farmers can use calculations to determine how much water they’ve extracted. 

A pump extracts water from a stream in Huntington for irrigation on Burnt Rock Farm. Courtesy of Justin Rich

Justin Rich, who grows organic vegetables at Burnt Rock Farm in Huntington and serves as vice president of the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association, testified on the bill before lawmakers last session. He already calculates the amount of water he uses, and said the requirements will present a small lift for him, but he worries about the implications of the forthcoming permitting structure. 

Irrigation is a necessary part of his business, Rich said. It could increase his potato yield by 20%, for example, which makes a difference when it comes time to pay the bills.

“Climate change was used as the logic behind a lot of this permitting scheme that was desired to be implemented, but nowhere were they saying, ‘yet we value the fact that this water is being used to grow food. Let's find some solutions so that these farmers can continue to grow food to feed our communities,’” he said. 

Patch, who also testified before lawmakers last session, said he advocated for keeping the burden on farmers low, and thought the bill ended up “in a good place to understand the water usage in the state,” he said. 

Dolan, the co-sponsor of the bill, said she stressed throughout the process that the law is intended to support those who already rely on surface water withdrawals. 

“This is all about how to ensure that, when there's water needs related to water withdrawals for all our existing uses, that there's water there for them, including agriculture,” she said.

Don't miss a thing. Sign up here to get VTDigger's weekly email on the energy industry and the environment.


Did you know VTDigger is a nonprofit?

Our journalism is made possible by member donations. If you value what we do, please contribute and help keep this vital resource accessible to all.

Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

Send us your thoughts

VTDigger is now accepting letters to the editor. For information about our guidelines, and access to the letter form, please click here.


Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "New law requires farmers and others to keep records of surface water ..."
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.