Water Shortages Come Home To Connecticut

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Fly-fishing in January
Fly-fishermen brave the Farmington River in January. Photo:Neena Satija
A map highlighting the reservoirs and their respective river basins that could be affected by UConn's proposals to get more water.
U.S. Geological Survey, Virginia De Lima
Connecticut's Water Woes
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Connecticut's Water Woes

As Connecticut continues to dig out from a historic blizzard, it’s clear that climate change is affecting where and when the state gets water. Environmental experts say that’s going to create problems for the state and the region down the line. Controversy over the University of Connecticut’s plans to get more water have already jumpstarted the conversation.

With as many as 40 inches of snow falling across the state last weekend, it definitely seems like we have more water than we’ll ever need right now. But actually, Winter Storm Nemo or whatever you want to call it is an example of how extreme weather patterns are creating real problems for water resources in Connecticut.

Here’s how Pat Bresnahan explains it:

“It’s kind of like the difference between having a steady job where you get a paycheck every week…and being a consultant where you may have feast or famine in your cash flow.”

Bresnhan is the former associate director of UConn’s Water Resources Institute. A couple weeks ago I took a trip to the Pleasant Valley section of the Farmington River in Barkhamsted. The river was flowing enough that fly-fishermen were braving the January cold. But last summer fishermen were in real trouble. Dave Sinish has lived in the Farmington Valley since 1971, and he says kayaks and canoes were barely scraping across this nearly dry riverbed. 

As re recalls, “you could walk across the river.”

Right now the fly-fishermen were almost waist-deep in water. Last summer, Sinish says, “there was about a third of what we see now going down the river.”

Most residents around here would agree that the Farmington Valley is thirsty. That’s why the University of Connecticut’s proposal to tap into reservoirs here is making a lot of people upset. Pat Bresnahan says the battle over water resources may be a taste of things to come here.

“Part of the problem is, we get so much rain, and we’re perceived as being a very water-rich area. But because of our development patterns, the development isn’t always where the water is," she says. 

UConn, for instance, is in the mostly rural town of Mansfield – 20 miles from the Farmington River. Virtually no water utilities run there, and so the town and the university depend on getting groundwater, from wells. Now that UConn plans to build a $170 million new technology park, and increase its student population by a third, it’s going to need a way to get 2 million more gallons of water per day. It’s considering reservoirs that draw from the Farmington River, as well as other rivers in the state.

“When you think about it, the university is 130 years old. We’re at a point where after 130 years we need to look at some additional options," explains Tom Callahan, who is  in charge of infrastructure and investment planning at UConn. After nearly pumping a river dry in 2005, the school has spent more than $45 million on water conservation. But because it relies on wells, not surface reservoirs, there’s just not enough storage for times of drought.

Chris Stone works for the non-profit Metropolitan District Commission, which operates the reservoirs UConn wants in the Farmington Valley. He told WNPR’s “Where We Live” that UConn’s proposal to draw from them wouldn’t require a drop of water from the actual river – just the reservoirs.

“We have 12 million gallons of water a day that is available for new customers of the MDC," he said. 

Residents of the Farmington valley weren’t buying it at a public hearing last month. Susan Marino remembered when new facilities were built at colleges where she used to live in California. At first, the water line was supposed to be just for, say, a rec center. But then all this new development sprouted up around it – meaning even more water was needed.

“So what stated as just a water line did not end up like that and was ac omplete sprawl-generating development in an area where there was no infrastructure originally," Marino said at the hearing. "And I’m getting a very stomach-turning sense of deja-vu right now.”

Mansfield, UConn and state officials insist that 2 million more gallons of water a day is all they’ll need for the foreseeable future. But many environmental advocates say we really have no idea how much we’ll need and that we have to develop a comprehensive water strategy. The state created a council for that purpose in 2000 after a severe drought and 14 annual reports later, progress is limited.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Virginia De Lima says creating a real plan means publicly asking some tough questions that the South and Southwest have already been grappling with for years.

 “Who gets water? If there’s competition over water or competiton over high-quality water, who gets it first? Who has to cut back first?” she asks.

Those are not easy questions to answer as one of our largest and most prestigious public universities asks to quench its thirst. 

Read more in the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org