Legislative panel takes another look at water regulations

Ten years after a dispute between two towns ignited the issue, a legislative panel is set to vote this week on rules governing how much water reservoir owners must release downstream and how much can be retained for human use.

If approved, the so-called “stream flow” rules would be the first broad controls of reservoirs in Connecticut. They would replace 31-year-old regulations that covered only a handful of streams where the state stocks trout and other fish.

The proposed regulations would cover 116 reservoirs in the state. Another 23 reservoirs would not be covered regulations because they started operating before the state had any water supply regulations or they follow separate state management plans.

The rules to be considered Tuesday by the legislature’s Regulations Review Committee also exclude groundwater sources, such as wells, from regulation. An earlier set of regulations covering groundwater was rejected by the review committee in October.

Even with the section on ground water removed, “I expect the vote to be close,” said state Rep. T. R. Rowe, R-Trumbull, the committee co-chair.

Environmentalists say the regulations will help preserve the aquatic ecology downstream from dams-particularly the ability of fish to spawn and thrive. But opponents, including water companies and agricultural interest, say the rules could restrict the availability of water for essential human uses.

The 2005 law that requires the Department of Environmental Protection to develop rules for regulating the quantities of water taken from rivers was inspired by the near-drying up of two rivers in the Waterbury and New Haven area water systems at various times. In Waterbury, the city was using less and less water from one of its oldest reservoirs because of the difficulty to pump its reserves to a new water treatment plant. And it was using more and more water from a reservoir it had added near the Shepaug River, which flows from there into the town of Washington.

About a decade ago, Washington sued Waterbury, claiming it had violated a 1921 water agreement between the two municipalities. The case went to the state Supreme Court and ultimately was resolved in 2002 with a state plan that governs how Waterbury uses water. Millions in state funding went to lay pipes so that the older reservoir-which draws from the Branch Brook, a tributary of the Naugatuck River-could be put into use, taking the strain off the Shepaug River in Washington.

Because of the state plan, Waterbury’s reservoirs would not be covered by the proposed regulations.

Around the time that was resolved, the General Assembly had to intervene in another case, when New Haven and Hamden sued the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority over its use of the Mill River watershed for its Lake Whitney reservoir. This led to a state management plan for that system.

A third, dramatic drying up of a small river came just after the General Assembly passed the law requiring these new regulations. The Fenton River near the University of Connecticut’s main campus, dried up for a period after nearby wells were pumped.

“I see the Fenton River as the exclamation point” in the argument to regulate the quantities of water people use for their own purposes, said Betsey Wingfield, chief of the DEP’s Bureau of Water Protection and Land Reuse. Public drinking water supplies make up almost half of all water use in the state (47 percent), she said. It dwarfs the amount taken for industry (15 percent) and power plant cooling (1 percent).

Wingfield said that science has come a long way in understanding how to regulate water use since the late 1970s.

The DEP relied heavily on a Georgia study of how fish responded to withdrawals for reservoirs in the Piedmont region of that state. Scientists sampled fish in 28 streams over a three-year period. The study established ways to maintain the minimum flow required during spring and summer, when fish are traveling and spawning.

A later study by University of Connecticut scientists concluded that when high amounts of water are taken from streams, fewer fish stayed alive.

The DEP, while it removed the ground water provisions this round, plans to reintroduce them next session, it said in a letter with the proposed regulations.

Wingfield said the DEP believes state law requires it to regulate ground water too, on order to have healthy rivers. “We’re choosing to do a phased approach,” she said.

“The ground water provision of the regulations, now removed, caused controversy because it was not clear that the enabling legislation from 2005 contemplated regulation of groundwater,” Rowe said. “DEP disagreed, but realized that the regulations would not pass if ground water remained, so they withdrew those elements. I am pleased the groundwater provisions were eliminated, and I understand legislation will be introduced in the coming session to more directly address the ground water issue.”

River advocates have been pushing for these regulations. Margaret Miner, executive director of the Rivers Alliance, said that even without the ground water controls, she supports the new regulations. “There is a horrendously long implementation period that I’m very worried about,” she added. It will take the DEP some years to classify all of the rivers based on their habitats and water flows. After that, counting years to implement the rules and requests for more time, it could be two decades before the stream flow rules went into effect in some places, she said.

“In the meantime we do have-if this passes, which is a 50-50 chance-guidelines,” she said, “and a state policy on the quantities of water that are minimally protected to save river life. That is a large step forward.”