As I See It: Caring for Fairfield’s water quality no drop in the bucket
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how little we think about water. It would be a different story if we lived in, say, Fairfield, Calif., which is scraping by with way too little water, or Fairfield, Texas, which suddenly found itself with way too much.
Here, in America’s first Fairfield, we are granted an ample supply of fresh water, for the most part without going to extremes. Our biggest water worry, in fact, comes from the sea. Storm surges from Long Island Sound have regularly pounded the few thousand homes we chose to build in our coastal floodplain. As for freshwater threats, the last serious shortage was a three-year drought in the early 1960s; the catastrophic 1955 hurricane-related inland floods, mainly upstate, are an even dimmer memory. Our experience with heavy rains is typically limited to flooded basements, downed power lines and slippery roads. Our namesakes in California and Texas would be happy with these problems.
But have we gotten a little cavalier about water? Climate scientists tell us (climate change deniers skip ahead) that New England can continue to expect about 48 inches of precipitation per year overall, but that we’re likely to have more “extreme weather events.” Perhaps our relationship with water deserves a little more thought.
Fairfield water consumers are at the fulcrum of a largely invisible and remarkably reliable system of water delivery and wastewater treatment. Clean, multipurpose water is on tap 24/7 in our homes, and when we’re done with it, it disappears down our drains. And that’s that.
On the surface, there’s no mystery about the origins and fate of our water. Some of us still have wells, but most of us receive pristine water from the Aquarion Water Co., to which we pay a small fraction of what we pay Cablevision for non-life-sustaining entertainment. And most of us are connected to the town sewer system that collects our wastewater, a service covered by property taxes and a sewer assessment.
One helluva deal, I think! We’ve come a long way from water buckets and outhouses. But the ease with which we use water insulates us from appreciating how complicated it is to keep it that way.
Drive north on Black Rock Turnpike past the Merritt Parkway and you’ll pass Fairfield’s principal sources of water, the Hemlock and Aspetuck reservoirs, supported by the Saugatuck Reservoir to the northwest. The Aquarion Water Co. owns the reservoirs and thousands of acres of surrounding forests (about 20,000 acres statewide).
This is important for two reasons: first, minimizing development in the reservoir watersheds allows the forest to deliver naturally filtered rainwater to the reservoirs. Second, Aquarion, in partnership with the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Nature Conservancy, oversees these lands to protect the woodland habitat, including its wildlife, and provide low-impact recreation, like hiking trails. Aquarion regularly patrols its lands, and monitors privately owned land in the watershed to detect polluting activities.
Aquarion maintains 300 miles of water mains in Fairfield (as well as our fire hydrants), and delivers an estimated 10 million gallons or so of water to us each day. Reservoir water is of high quality, but before that water reaches us, it is filtered to remove clay, soil, and other impurities, and disinfected in accordance with federal regulations. The water is continually tested to assure quality.
So, then, when you brush your teeth or flush a toilet, what happens to that water? For 90% of homes (some of us still rely on septic systems), and 100 percent of commercial sites, wastewater runs through 200 miles of sewer line to the wastewater treatment plant on One Rod Highway. Established in 1950 and upgraded several times since, it’s currently valued at $100 million and staffed by 17 operators. On the average, about 8 million gallons of wastewater comes into the facility (it can handle up to 24 million gallons for short periods); within a half day, arriving wastewater is returned in clean, safe condition to the Sound. Storm sewers, by the way, carry runoff directly to the Sound.
I recently toured the facility with a Fairfield Ludlowe High School marine biology class. The football-field-sized plant, with its huge tanks, towers, conduits and filters, rehabilitates wastewater in a series of steps by removing solids, digesting sludge, removing nitrogenous waste, and disinfecting with UV light. Solids are recycled and sold as compost for parks and golf courses.
It would be short-sighted of us to take our water for granted. Water is, in fact, a precious and limited natural resource. Competition for water (population, agriculture, recreation) is increasing, and we may be facing more prolonged shortages. We really should develop better water conservation habits, and a visit to www.aquarionwater.com will give you myriad suggestions. Remember too that wasting water inflates your water bill, and also increases the cost of operating the wastewater treatment plant.
As for me, I’m not going to let the water run when I brush my teeth and I’m going to slice a few seconds off my showers. I’m getting a rain barrel to collect free water for our backyard garden. My lawn has been on its own for years, mainly because it’s a pain to water it, but now I can say it’s a matter of virtue.
John Herlihy, vice president, water quality and environmental ,anagement, Aquarion Water Co., and Joe Michelango, director, and John Bodie, assistant superintendent, Fairfield Department of Public Works, provided invaluable background for this column.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "As I See It” column appears periodically. He can be reached at: email@example.com.