Fairfield opposes Aquarion project designed to improve drought conditions in southwest CT

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Volunteers from Trout Unlimited affix discarded Christmas trees to the banks and bed of the Mill River in an effort to restore its banks and natural flow in August of 2018.

Volunteers from Trout Unlimited affix discarded Christmas trees to the banks and bed of the Mill River in an effort to restore its banks and natural flow in August of 2018.

Contributed photo / Nutmeg Trout Unlimited

FAIRFIELD — An Aquarion proposal to divert water to southwestern Connecticut has drawn backlash in Fairfield where the conservation commission says the project could harm the Mill River watershed.

The project is part of Aquarion’s long range plan to meet water needs in southwestern Fairfield County. If approved, it would divert up to 14.2 million gallons a day from the Greater Bridgeport System, which includes the Mill River watershed to the Southwest Regional Pipeline to serve Greenwich, New Canaan, Stamford and Darien.

The current allowed amount is 7.26 million gallons a day.

Aquarion spokesman Peter Fazekas said the project is designed to ensure there’s adequate public water supply, improve drought resilience and meet the reservoir release requirements.

“Aquarion’s water systems in Southwest Fairfield County currently do not have an adequate supply to meet demands, as evidenced by the state declared drought emergency in 2016 and the recent drought warning in 2020,” he said. “Despite Aquarion’s aggressive conservation efforts, the capacity needed for these systems is expected to continue to increase due to projections of increased demands and reduced available water.”

The lower available water is expected based on more water releases from the dams required by new streamflow regulations going into effect, he said.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has issued a Notice of Tentative Determination to Approve, but limited the annual daily average limitation to 12.56 million gallons a day.

That decision said the diversion is necessary, won’t “significantly affect long-range water resources management,” and won’t impair the proper management or use of water resources.

This prompted two petitions, including one signed by 30 Fairfield residents to hold a public hearing on the proposal. The Fairfield Conservation Commission also filed for intervening status, giving it more say in the process.

“By diverting nearly seven million gallons per day more out of the Mill River watershed, it is reasonable to expect the further impairment of the Mill River,” the commission wrote in its petition.

DEEP has granted the request, adding the recent departure of the conservation administrator doesn’t affect it.

A public hearing is slated for May 4 for public comment and an evidentiary one on May 6, DEEP spokesman Will Healey said.

“We appreciate the public’s concern in this matter and look forward to any additional information that may result from the upcoming hearing process,” he said.

The hearing officer will make her decision after the hearing, and send it to the commissioner for a final decision, which is expected by the end of June, Healey said.

The Fairfield Conservation Commission argues diverting the water from the Mill River watershed, which includes Cricker Brook, will harm the river and the surrounding wetlands. It also argues it would affect public health and safety in and around the river, as well as the wildlife, fisheries, vegetation and aquatic resources.

“Portions of Mill River have been designated as not meeting water quality standards and the increased diversion will result in less water for Mill River, which is likely to exacerbate the water quality impairment of Mill River,” the commission wrote.

The commission also argues Aquarion’s application is inconsistent with the state’s streamflow standards, which go into effect in 2029. The standards are used to balance the wildlife needs with those of humans, including drinking, domestic, fire, irrigation, manufacturing and recreational purposes.

“These standards provide for more releases to watercourses below reservoirs and dams, to maintain the ecological health of those watercourses, such as the Mill River,” the commission wrote, adding the current demographics and impact the coronavirus had on that weren’t considered.

The commission also argued other sites weren’t considered and suggested the Upper Byram River Aquifer as an alternative.

Fazekas said Aquarion looked at several options, including buying water from New York City, increasing reservoir storage and developing new groundwater supplies.

“The Upper Byram River Aquifer does not have the capacity to supply the volume of water needed and the environmental impacts from a significant new groundwater withdrawal in this basin have not been evaluated,” he said.

He said the current project won’t change the flow from Aquarion’s reservoirs into Cricker Brook, and subsequently the Mill River.

“Aquarion will comply with the Streamflow Standards and Regulations and therefore, the diversion will have no effect on the ecology or public health and safety in and around the river,” Fazekas said.

If approved, the new limits would go into effect immediately but Fazekas said it would take a little bit longer for it to become a reality since Aquarion still needs to build some of the infrastructure for the larger volume. The first two construction phases have been completed.

Phase three is scheduled to go to bid this fall if the permit is approved, with construction likely starting in 2022 and lasting a few years. This phases could handle a summer capacity of 9.2 million gallons a day. Phase four, which would bring it to the full capacity, would be completed by 2029.

“Planning and infrastructure improvements need to begin now to ensure adequate water supplies over the next 25 years,” Fazekas said.