Panel agrees Greenwich needs more water but question diverting it from Fairfield

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. Work will resume Saturday, Sept. 14, on Congress Street in Fairfield, and help is needed.

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. Work will resume Saturday, Sept. 14, on Congress Street in Fairfield, and help is needed.

Contributed photo / Nutmeg Trout Unlimited

FAIRFIELD — There’s no dispute that southwestern Connecticut has struggled with droughts, but environmentalists and fishing advocates question where the extra water should come from and at what cost.

The issues were raised at a recent informational session hosted by state Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, in advance of a public hearing on an application that would essentially double the amount of water diverted from the greater Bridgeport system to the southwest corner.

“When this proposal came through March of last year, the diversion permit was not only for the doubling of the amount but also for 25 years, which gave us pause as an organization that really looks at water stewardship,” said Kate O’Mahoney, a board member for the Mill River Wetland Committee, a grassroots group based in Fairfield.

Most of the five panelists said any approval had to come with conditions, including conservation restrictions on the community and better monitoring so they can see how it will affect the stream levels in the Mill River watershed.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will have a public hearing on the project on May 4.

If approved, the plan 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.

DEEP has issued a Notice of Tentative Determination to Approve, but restricted the annual daily average limitation to 12.56 million gallons a day.

Greenwich’s water problem

Greenwich is no stranger to droughts, dating back to at least the 1960s, said Denise Savageau, who served as Greenwich’s conservation director for 20 years, joining in 1998.

There were also droughts in 2002, 2007, 2010, 2016 and again last year, all of which affected the water supply in Greenwich and surrounding towns, she said.

The regional pipeline was added in the late 1980s and early 1990s to bring water to southwestern Connecticut. An above-ground pipeline was also used in 2016 to bring additional water during a drought that this time affected the whole state.

It takes about two to three years of droughts for the reservoirs in the Greater Bridgeport System — which includes Fairfield, Weston, Easton and Bridgeport — to really feel the impact. By contrast, the reservoirs in the Greenwich and Stamford area are “flash reservoirs,” generally offering only a year of supply, Savageau said.

The problem is intensified when usage is factored in, putting more of a demand the streamflows can’t support.

Greenwich averages 81 gallons per capita a day, the highest in the state, said Alicea Charamut, executive director of the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, adding the bulk of this was due to outdoor water use, not drinking water.

The higher demand was seen throughout the state last year with more people home and tending to their lawns.

“There’s not much we can do about the weather, but we can do a lot about how much we’re taking out of our natural rivers, streams and groundwater,” Charamut said.

Several panelists said conservation restrictions, such as the current one in Greenwich that only allows outdoor watering twice a week, need to be adopted and enforced.

Other mitigation methods include recapturing storm water and more green building.

“Aquarion only has so much authority to implement some of those programs so it’s really going to be up to the communities themselves to really focus on bringing that conservation level up even further,” Charamut said.

The area effects

Several of the panelists said they agreed the Greenwich area needed more water, but they worried what this diversion could mean for the streams in the Fairfield area and the Mill River itself.

Jack Kovach, with Trout Unlimited’s Connecticut chapter, said he worries the lower stream levels will make the waters warmer and harm the native trout, which need colder waters to survive.

“If there is any damage there in terms of the trout population, that damage is going to be pretty much irreparable,” said Kovach, a former editor with Hearst Connecticut Media.

They all stressed that what’s happening in the streams, groundwater and Long Island Sound are intertwined and need to be considered when diverting from one area to another. They also said the increase of severe rain events doesn’t necessarily replenish the water table so it’s likely flooding and droughts can happen in the same season.

Hwang said Aquarion also plans to reopen and remediate the Housatonic well fields, which were closed due to manganese contamination.

“Although that’s a different permitting process than the one being discussed tonight, it is integral to the entire project and this remains an integral part of this necessary discussion,” he said.

Manganese is a common contaminant in water, said Margaret Miner, the former director for Rivers Alliance of Connecticut.

It is also an essential trace element naturally found in many foods and available as a dietary supplement, but it should be consumed in small amounts. Some people have developed manganese toxicity, by consuming water containing very high levels of manganese or inhaling large amounts of manganese dust from welding or mining work, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The proposal also illustrated the holes within the state’s water management overall and how there should be more done to inform the public about it, said Miner.

“It’s very hard to find out how these decisions are made and to take part in them and then removing them, modifying them or mitigating them is also difficult,” Miner said.