The University of Connecticut in Storrs needs more water — but some people are doing their best to make sure that water doesn’t come from the Farmington Valley 35 miles away.
They said as much at a packed public hearing on the issue held Tuesday at the UConn Health Center in Farmington.
“We are from the Farmington Valley. The river defines us,” said Simsbury Selectman Lisa Heavner to an audience of over 80 people. “We have been stewards of it since the 1600s, and we plan on being stewards of the valley and the river for hundreds of years to come.”
UConn has always struggled to keep up with the water demands of its huge population, given that the main campus is located in a relatively underdeveloped and water-poor area. Last fall, there were months when the university was able to take less than 1 million gallons of water per day from wellfields that draw from the nearby Fenton and Willimantic rivers. It is considered a dangerously low amount, since the university is allowed to draw about 3 million gallons of water a day from those sources.
In September 2005, during a particularly dry spell, the university pumped the Fenton River dry.
Now, to keep up with its ambitious plans for expansion, which include building a new technology park and hiring hundreds more faculty, the university expects to need about 2 million more gallons per day.
After years of studying the issue, UConn has proposed three ways of getting more water: draw from the Shenipsit Reservoir in Stafford, from the Willimantic Reservoir near the Windham Airport, or from reservoirs in the Farmington River Basin.
The third proposal involves extending a water transmission pipeline from East Hartford, where a water service system managed by the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), already exists. The 18-mile extension would run from East Hartford to Storrs.
It is that proposal that Heavner and most of the others in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting strongly opposed. Dozens of public officials and residents from the Farmington Valley region spoke out against the plan, concerned that it would further tax a water supply that has already been depleted in recent years because of increasingly severe droughts.
“One needs to only visit the Farmington River on an average mid-July day to see how low the level of water is, and at times, walkable, from one shore to the next,” said state Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton. He called the proposal “unacceptable.”
The MDC has insisted that it has enough capacity to supply 12 million gallons of water to new customers, and therefore won’t need to draw extra water from the Farmington River itself — just the Barkhamsted and Nepaug reservoirs in the valley region.
But residents at the meeting Tuesday night weren’t buying it. Eventually, they say, a new 18-mile pipeline from East Hartford to Storrs will encourage sprawling development alongside it, and the Farmington River will eventually be asked to supply water to the new customers.
“Here’s a suggestion,” said Donald Rieger, who sits on Simsbury’s conservation commission. “If the MDC has [water] that it would be comfortable committing to UConn, why not instead return it to the [Farmington] river, in those seasons when the river needs the water?” After his statement, the audience broke into applause.
At the hearing, officials from the town of Mansfield and UConn pointed out that the MDC proposal was one of only three the university is considering. They added that UConn has done an extraordinary job conserving water in recent years, holding the average daily production of water stable at 1.26 million gallons a day since 2005 — despite an increase in population during that time.
“I’ve never seen conservation like I’ve seen at UConn,” said David Murphy of the Cheshire-based environmental consulting firm Milone and MacBroom Inc., which has been assessing the potential environmental impact of UConn’s proposals. “When UConn needs to conserve water, it can.”
But those in attendance strongly criticized UConn’s strategy, saying Farmington Valley residents only heard about the plan “haphazardly,” and had to ask specifically for a public hearing in the Farmington area.
“I’ll tell you that most of our town residents are still unaware of this issue,” said Liz Dolphin, assistant town planner in Farmington, reading a letter from the town council Chairman Jeffrey Hogan.
Environmentalists also argued that UConn hasn’t fully studied the potential impacts of the MDC proposal on the Farmington River Valley area. An even bigger concern, some said, is that the state doesn’t even have a comprehensive plan for managing water resources in the future, in light of aggressive new development and concerns over climate change.
“We have no state budget, [and] really no state water distribution plan,” said Margaret Miner, executive director of the Connecticut Rivers Alliance.
Several others asked that the UConn proposals be put on hold until the state, and its various regions, all develop water management plans. State Rep. John Hampton, D-Simsbury, announced that he is proposing a bill in the General Assembly that would establish a moratorium on all water diversion plans statewide until Connecticut comes up with a water plan.
“Let us pause and start a constructive dialogue between all parties that results in solutions to water supply challenges that are strategically and environmentally sound,” he said, followed by cheers and applause.
UConn has extended the public comment period for its proposals until the end of the month.