Public-private water war shaping up in Connecticut
Connecticut water supplies are limited and vulnerable to droughts — or even summer dry spells — that can pit town against town and individual consumers against high-powered commercial interests, a new plan warns.
Even as the state crawls out of a two-year drought, with reservoirs now rated at more than 103-percent of capacity, regulators hope the study leads to the state’s first conservation plan that can help manage the precious resource, and balance the needs of commercial, recreational and individual consumers.
Consumer advocates are critical of the 616-page report from the state Water Planning Council that will be presented to four key legislative committees when the General Assembly reconvenes next month.
They are worried that what happened in a Hartford suburb a couple years ago — when a major water-bottling plant was approved with little public input and oversight, and is now diverting a million gallons of drinking water daily — could happen anywhere in the state.
“People are especially irate that corporations are turning it into a private asset,” said Valerie Rossetti, a retired physician who watched he hometown of Bloomfield open their local water supply to the Niagara Bottling Corp.
She and other activists who were disappointed with the council’s report, believe that utilities, business lobbyists and the top Republican state senators attacked the compelling testimony of she and other advocates during the recent public hearing process.
“They have devised this whole state water plan without consideration of what are safe yields,” she said, stressing an upcoming lobbying effort in the General Assembly.
In fact, there has been a very public battle over the use of “public trust” to describe the state’s definition of the 150 reservoir systems in Connecticut’s 44 river basins.
Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney joined Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, in asking the council for the public-trust designation.
“Certainly the principle that Connecticut’s water is to be treated as a public trust is a key component to any state water plan, if that plan is indeed committed to preserving our natural resources for generations to come,” Looney said. “Arguments to the contrary undercut what is the essential aspect of the public trust concept: to ensure that there is enough water for all to use in perpetuity.”
But Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven and Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, argued the words should not be included.
“This is a complex legal issue that has been the subject of considerable litigation throughout the country and raises serious concerns regarding whether it will be construed in ways that impede the water use rights of agriculture, business and industry,” the two GOP Senate leaders recently wrote to the planning council.
In the end, the Water Planning Council fell short of declaring water a public trust, instead relying on an existing state law that says “there is a public trust in the air, water and other natural resources of the state of Connecticut and that each person is entitled to the protection, preservation and enhancement of the same.”
Lori Mathieu, the public health section chief for the state Department of Public Health, who serves on the water council, said that the report is really just a starting point for the state, and the first time so much information on water resources has been collected. It gives Connecticut a path forward.
“We can do much better on drought,” she said in an interview. “We need to talk about what we’re doing now for water conservation. Is it being enhanced? Also we should look at private wells, with possibly moving forward with testing.”
While state reservoirs are filling up from seasonal snow and rain, the pattern in recent years has been for warmer weather to occur sooner in the year and linger later, Mathieu said.
“The warming season is extended,” she said. “That puts a challenge on drinking water supplies. We start to use water sooner, and the watering season is longer.”
Still, at a time when much of the country has major problems with drinking supplies, Connecticut has water wealth, the report said.
“We think it can have a competitive advantage for the Northeast,” said Joseph McGee, vice president for policy with the Business Council of Fairfield County, and a former member of a subcommittee of the water council.
“Historically, we have had a lot of water, and we want to continue to be good stewards of the resource,” said John W. Betkoski III, vice chairman of the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority who is chairman of the Water Planning Council. “One of the things I would love to do, with guidance from the legislature, is to look ahead to conservation.”
Bottling plant battle
The plan is the result of a year-long study following a 2014 state law. Right in the middle of the planning process was the controversy in Bloomfield, where the Niagara Bottling Corp. cut a deal with local officials and the regional water authority in 2015 that activists said was not thoroughly reviewed by taxpayers.
“Basically, there are no regulations in the state of Connecticut for large industrial water-bottling facilities,” Rosetti said in an interview. “At the time we were in a serious drought and over the next two years we have asked the state to develop more oversight. People were really outraged. They don’t want international bottling companies coming in and taking water from the state. The state refused to regulate in any way.”
Karen Burnaska, former Monroe first selectman who represents the Connecticut Fund for the Environment on the planning council, said she expects the public-trust issue to emerge over the next few months as the legislative committees on Environment, Public Health, Planning and Development and Energy & Technology review it.
“I fully expect that we’ll have another public hearing,” said Mathieu, the veteran head of the Department of Public Health’s water division. “That is fine. We now have a plan that we can focus on. Since the 1950’s Connecticut has said we need a plan for water.”
Burnaska said that the sheer size of an unprecedented report that tries to get a handle on such a broad subject, is bound to ignite critics.
“Once you get 400-plus pages you are going to find something that someone doesn’t like,” she said. “It is up to the state to manage it and plan enough for the public, private and commercial needs to be met.”
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