Plan to divert 14.2M gallons a day to southwestern CT awaits a decision by state officials

Photo of Katrina Koerting
A fisherman tries out a new fishing spot on the Mill River in Fairfield on Sunday, March 21, 2021.

A fisherman tries out a new fishing spot on the Mill River in Fairfield on Sunday, March 21, 2021.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

The fate of a proposal that would essentially double the amount of water diverted from the Greater Bridgeport system to southwestern Connecticut now rests in the hands of the state.

Environmental groups and residents from the Fairfield area spent two public hearings this past week objecting to a permit now before the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, citing negative impacts on residents and the 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 to the Southwest Regional Pipeline. The current allowed amount is 7.26 million gallons a day.

DEEP already issued a Notice of Tentative Determination to Approve, limiting the annual daily average to 12.56 million gallons a day. The notice prompted two petitions and fueled comment at the public hearings.

Critics objected to the proposal, saying they were concerned the diversion would negatively impact residents and the watershed, 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 as time went on to determine the impacts and need.

Officials from the communities the diversion would serve — Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan and Stamford — said the water was needed as drought conditions become more likely. They also said their communities were cutting water use by increasing conservation efforts, something that both those in the Greater Bridgeport System and Aquarion said need to be key components of the proposal.

“It’s important water be used wisely, especially if it’s coming that distance,” said Peter Galant of Tighe and Bond, which prepared the application for and serves as a consultant for Aquarion.

Janice Deshais, the DEEP hearing officer for the permit, is now considering the proposal. She held a public comment hearing on Tuesday and an evidentiary hearing Thursday that collected testimony from Aquarion, DEEP and other interested parties, which include several Fairfield groups, especially the Fairfield Conservation Commission.

Written comments can be submitted until May 15 to deep.adjudications@ct.gov.

Deshais said she expects to issue a decision in several months. She will hold another hearing this summer on alternatives if she finds that the diversion will have adverse environmental impacts.

“My ultimate decision, which would include my findings on alternatives, would be several months after that hearing and any post-hearing process,” she said.

The Greater Bridgeport System is made up of 12 towns: Bridgeport, Wilton, New Canaan, Darien, Stamford, Fairfield, Easton, Weston, Redding, Greenwich, Westport and Norwalk.

Galant said the four southwestern towns need more water.

“There’s not enough supply from the local supplies to meet the demand and the demands are projected to increase, though not significantly,” he said.

He said Aquarion also looked at other water sources, including purchasing water from New York and increasing the existing reservoirs that serve the Southwest Regional Pipeline, but said increasing water from the Greater Bridgeport System was the only feasible option.

Kate O’Mahoney, with the Mill River Wetland Committee in Fairfield, said Aquarion has been diverting 5 million daily gallons of water from the Greenwich system to New York as part of an old agreement and questioned if that should still be in effect, considering the increased need there and that DEEP discourages trans-state diversions.

Those in the Greater Bridgeport System said they recognized the need for more water for the southwestern corner, but questioned if it needed to nearly double the amount it’s already getting.

“That seems like a significant increase,” said state Sen. Tony Hwang, R-28. He instead proposed 10 million gallons and adding a five-year review process to see how much is actually needed.

Doug Hoskins, who approved the initial permit for DEEP, said adding the lower average daily cap essentially meant Aquarion couldn’t divert the maximum allowed amount every day. He also said the permit has wording that allows the department to modify the allowed amount based on droughts or adverse effects to the environment, public health or safety.

“We don’t issue the permit and call it a day,” he said.

Environmentalists and some officials argued that Aquarion determined water need based on state Department of Transportation estimates and not the population estimates Milone and MacBroom have done for the region. They also said only Stamford’s numbers increased among the four southwestern towns.

Critics also said they worried the application didn’t take into consideration the number of people who moved to Greater Bridgeport during the pandemic and how those needs might be increasing. They asked that gauges be activated along the reservoir system to monitor water flow and ensure the diversion wasn’t lowering water levels too much and in turn harming the wildlife there.

Several endangered or threatened species are found along the waterways, including the eastern box turtle, the wood turtle, bald eagles and the toothcup plant. There’s also a wildlife management area for brook trout.

“We have to be careful with any impacts to these species,” said Patrick Comins, executive director for the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Galant said the diversion won’t impact the flows of Cricker Brook or Mill River and so gauges aren’t needed.

Opponents of the permit also said the total water supply for the Greater Bridgeport System was based on a contaminated well field being cleaned up and coming back online, which they worried would affect the water quality.

O’Mahoney of the Mill River Wetland Committee said Greenwich’s water use is three times the rest of the state and attributed the amount as being directly connected to outdoor water use.

Both Darien First Selectwoman Jayme Stevenson and Ted Jankowski, Stamford’s public safety health and welfare director, said their communities are committed to water conservation efforts, but said that approving the permit was critical.

Stevenson said leaders in all four southwestern communities have worked with Aquarion on restrictions, including only allowing outside irrigation two days a week. Darien is also teaching water conservation in the schools and educating the community at large.

“Drought resiliency will only be achieved with increased supply and sustained conservation efforts,” Stevenson said.

Jankowski said droughts are becoming more frequent, and while Stamford understands the need and supports conservation efforts, the additional water gives Aquarion more flexibility.

While opponents of the proposal said they appreciated the commitment to conservation, they suggested holding off on permitting the whole amount to further encourage residents to conserve water.

“What’s the incentive to do the conservation efforts when the water is readily available?” Hwang asked.

kkoerting@newstimes.com