Proposal to divert double the water from Fairfield area to southwestern CT approved

Photo of Katrina Koerting
A Fairfield resident enjoys a morning of fishing on the Mill River in Fairfield on Sunday, March 21, 2021.

A Fairfield resident enjoys a morning of fishing on the Mill River in Fairfield on Sunday, March 21, 2021.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

Controversy surrounding a proposal to double the amount of water allowed to be diverted from the Fairfield area to southwestern Connecticut has been resolved.

Aquarion Water Co., which filed for the diversion, this week announced an agreement between the town of Fairfield, the Fairfield Conservation Commission and several other local groups that had challenged the proposal based on environmental and supply concerns. The agreement approves the diversion but adds monitoring safeguards.

Under the plan, Aquarion will be able to divert a maximum of 14.2 million gallons per day from its Greater Bridgeport System — almost double the prior limit of 7.26 million gallons per day — to Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan. It is part of Aquarion’s long-range plan to meet water needs in southwestern Fairfield County, especially as the threat of droughts increases.

“The challenge of limited water resources in southwest Fairfield County has been an important problem to solve,” said Aquarion President Donald Morrissey. “We’re pleased to have reached an agreement with the town of Fairfield and leading environmental organizations from the community that will help us ensure the reliable delivery of high quality water to Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan not just in the near term, but for decades to come.”

Environmentalists and officials in Fairfield recognized the need for more water to that area but challenged the proposal, saying that much water would negatively affect the residents and watershed in the Greater Bridgeport System, especially along the Mill River and Cricker Brook. They urged the state to reduce the amount of water allowed and shorten the 25-year permit duration, giving more chance for review to determine the impacts and need.

As part of the agreement, additional monitoring was added to the plan. Aquarion will pay the U.S. Geological Survey to maintain and monitor the flow gauge on the Mill River in Fairfield throughout the life of the permit. The USGS will share that data online, which is accessible to the public, and ensure there’s enough water there to support aquatic life and fish habitats, Aquarion said.

The gauge had been a popular request throughout the public hearings.

Aquarion spokesman Peter Fazekas said the amount of water the company moves depends on the demand and is always being adjusted. He said the additional gauge is one step to ensure there’s enough water to the Greater Bridgeport System.

“We are always monitoring all our reservoir levels and balancing withdrawals,” Fazekas said. “We will also be bringing our Housatonic wellfield back online.”

The Greater Bridgeport System had been made up of 12 towns including Bridgeport, Wilton, Fairfield, Easton, Weston, Redding, Westport and Norwalk, but Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan will now be their own water region — the Southwest Fairfield County Region.

While the diversion is approved, Fazekas said it will be at least another three years before the needed infrastructure improvements are done to move the maximum amount of water allowed.

Controversy around the project began about a year ago.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection had already issued a Notice of Tentative Determination to Approve, limiting the annual daily average to 12.56 million gallons a day, sparking outcry in Fairfield. The notice prompted two petitions in January and fueled comment at the hearings in May.

The state ultimately approved the petition to divert in September, but was delayed when exceptions were filed later that month.

“The DEEP determined that the application was complete and, following its technical review, determined that the proposed diversion is necessary, will not significantly affect long-range water resources management, and will not impair proper management and use of the water resources of the state,” Janice Deshais, the DEEP hearing officer, wrote at the time.

Oral arguments were then set for November and December, but the December date was canceled and the exceptions withdrawn because of this agreement.

“I’m pleased we were able to work with Aquarion to address important issues around reliable water infrastructure and toward developing those resources in a way that balances Fairfield’s drinking water needs with protection of the environment,” said Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick.

Aquarion said the agreement is the result of a collaboration between the company, the town of Fairfield and its Conservation Commission, Fairfielders Protecting Land and Neighborhoods, the Lake Hills Association and the Mill River Wetland Committee.

“Under the agreement we’ve reached, stream flow standards will be adhered to, protecting the ecology of rivers and streams in our communities,” Kupchick said. “We fought for the best interest of the town of Fairfield and think the agreement with the addition of the gauge, will be a positive result for all parties.”

Alexis Harrison, co-president of Fairfielders Protecting Land and Neighborhoods, said the stream flow gauge had been in place at the Duck Farm Road bridge for decades until about 2016 when it was decommissioned for budgetary reasons. She said reinstalling it will allow those measurements to be taken again and help better understand any downstream effects.

She said the agreement will also mean Aquarion will continue to comply with the water release requirements of a separate agreement with Fairfield from 2007, until DEEP’s new Streamflow Standards and Regulations takes over. Fairfield will also get a summary water diversion report compiling annual water diversion data.

“Mill River is a considerable natural and recreational resource to Fairfield, and FairPLAN believes these agreements will help to ensure the future ecological health of the river for both wildlife and recreational use for all to enjoy now and in the future,” Harrison said.