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Taking Stock Of Water Woes



By STEPHANIE SUMMERS
Courant Staff Writer

December 19 2005

Your neighbor just built a pond and filled it with his well water. It dried up your artesian, but guess what? Under Connecticut common law, you have almost no recourse.

On the other hand, you'd better not draw too much water from the stream near your land because it's not OK to undercut its viability downstream.

Experts say Connecticut's water wars are just going to get worse.

There is no overarching water court to decide between the golf course that wants to keep its greens green and the nearby townspeople who are seeing the water level in their wells decline. The West has dealt with these conflicts for decades, but signs of stress over water are now cropping up throughout New England.

The University of Connecticut's overpumping of the Fenton River led one local state legislator to suggest tapping into a neighboring town's groundwater. Maine residents are proposing to tax Poland Spring 20 cents a gallon for water it bottles. Wetland preservation battles frequently bubble up in response to development projects, such as that for the Yale Farm Golf Club in Litchfield County.

Margaret Miner, executive director of Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, says Connecticut has more than 50 low-flow rivers, including the Fenton and the Hammonasset. But the protection of groundwater resources is more troubling, she said, and will require the governor and legislative leaders to solve "or we'll continue to have water conflicts and waste this incredibly valuable resource."

Connecticut has an unusual mix of challenges in managing its water resources. First, the 1,842 registered water "diverters" - water companies, commercial users, farmers and others who take more than 50,000 gallons a day from a water source - have maximum "draws" - amounts they can remove from streams - that were set years or decades ago.

That was the situation with UConn when it pumped a stretch of the Fenton dry during a September drought. Newer water consumers have to get permits, but there are only 150 active ones, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

So, the lion's share of entities drawing water are historical users, some large, who have only to register to stay active. They do not have to honor any water-use guidelines or have their maximums reviewed based on the needs of other water users. It's only been since 2003 that the DEP has required water diverters to document the volumes of water they use, and the agency is just beginning to compile the data, said Robert La France, a legislative liaison for DEP.

About 175 of New England's water experts came together for a conference recently that they hoped would not end with the speeches. It was called "Water Law in Connecticut: Balancing Needs for Fish and Faucet," and was held on the grounds of another large resource's home base, Northeast Utilities in Berlin.

There was consensus in the room that Connecticut is at a crucial stage in figuring out its water management and that it was time to act. The problem, as most seem to see it, is there is no water czar or agency in Connecticut to monitor and manage water resources. Most water rights are based on a body of old common-law experience.

"I would like to say it's a clearly worked-out body of law, but it's not so," said Kurt Strasser, a UConn School of Law professor. He said Connecticut has been applying various bodies of law "to muddle through" each case, but he is "worried it won't serve us as well in the future."

The second challenge is that no one knows the extent of Connecticut's water resource. State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, a 25-year legislative veteran and one of the state's best-known environmentalists, said that before we can share water fairly, we must find out how much water is in the state's basins. "Everybody is writing checks on the account, but nobody knows the balance," the Wallingford Democrat said.

She said that water resource planning would cost $3 million to $6 million - $1 or $2 per state resident. She added that, before the General Assembly passed any legislation setting up a statewide water monitoring system for both surface and groundwater and a water czar position, the cost would have to be covered.

Others questioned whether most of the money could come from merging overlapping state services, but Mushinsky warned that a water inventory would have to start from scratch and that only two of the staff at the DEP work on water monitoring. Gov. M. Jodi Rell recently mandated that the DEP establish minimum stream-flow standards throughout the state.

David Silverstone, president and CEO of the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority in New Haven, and Marshall Chiaraluce, CEO of the Connecticut Water Company, agreed to pay their shares of the cost, if it meant establishing a clear process with a timetable. "If a czar has equal obligation to water supply and environment, yes, we would abide by that system," Chiaraluce said.

Call to Action

Conference organizer Claire Bennitt, president of the Natural Resources Council of Connecticut, conceded that the interagency Water Planning Council set up four years ago is not working. "Let's be brave," she exhorted the crowd, and move ahead despite the hurdles.

DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy challenged the group to come to the table and hash it out. Clearly a woman who does not fear confrontation, McCarthy said the important thing was to begin the dialogue, respect one another but not fear the fight. "Struggle should be difficult. We make tough decisions. We make them clearly but not quietly."

With an easy wit, McCarthy introduced the panel members, many of them people she knew from her days in hazardous waste management, pollution prevention, open space preservation and smart growth for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

"Water is the No. 1 issue in Connecticut," she told them. "It drives everything."

Engineer James MacBroom agreed that a water inventory is a top priority, and Christopher Rooney, a major litigant in water and environmental issues, said he was "stunned at the lack of information statewide" when he represented Waterbury in a water-use case in 1997.

MacBroom is vice president of Milone & MacBroom, a civil and environmental engineering consulting firm in Cheshire, and teaches hydrology at Yale University. He said that while late-summer droughts are common in Connecticut, so are heavy rains like those experienced in October. His solutions included adding water storage to capture excess winter and spring runoff, focusing on water quality and quantity alike, and understanding the state's past water use in order to plan for the future.

Demand for water resources has changed drastically from agricultural and manufacturing to electrical power generation, cooling, leisure sports and recreational use. We over-rely on our streams for drinking water, and our rivers are full of untreated, undrinkable water, he said.

Not surprisingly, in Connecticut town fiefdoms make the problem of sharing the most basic resource a complex one.

In the West, said Karin Sheldon, associate dean for the environmental law program at the Vermont School of Law, most states have a one-stop water agency that deals with applications for use. Some states organize their water management around watersheds.

Organizing by watershed, county and state boundaries in Connecticut would be an improvement, but protecting the resource requires regional coordination, said Mark Smith, whose work with The Nature Conservancy takes in 14 Eastern states.

"Connecticut is poised to make the most progress in the least time and be a major leader," he said.

Smith challenged the trustees of Connecticut water to think multi-generationally, to find ways to reuse water, to cement a decision-making framework and, when planning long-term management of watersheds, to realize that not all rivers are the same. "Some are pristine and some are working rivers," he said.

One village elder at the conference, Russ Brenneman, planning manager for the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, invoked the weight of moral choices ahead.

"We look at the pie as if it's ours to cut up," he said. "... I'm interested in the people not in the room."

But Brenneman shared the impatience of others on the water front, conjuring the ghost of Gov. John Dempsey, who did away with numerous state agencies in the '60s, and asking if it were time for Rell to do something similar and "knock heads together."

Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant