The controversy over the University of Connecticut’s proposals to quench its thirst shows that water isn’t just the Southwestern states’ problem anymore.

The Northeast has often been seen as a water-rich part of the country and, in fact, the amount of rainfall in Connecticut has actually increased slightly in the last century. But weather patterns have become more erratic: In recent years, for instance, we’ve seen wetter winters, but drier summers. The historic blizzard that Connecticut is still digging out from this week is a perfect example.

water map

State map shows the reservoirs that might be tapped into based on proposals from the University of Connecticut. Map is from Virginia de Lima, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Connecticut office. The blue circle is where UConn discharges water.

“It’s kind of like the difference between having a steady job where you get a paycheck every week … and being a consultant where you may have feast or famine in your cash flow,” said Pat Bresnahan, former associate director of the University of Connecticut’s Water Resources Institute. “With climate change it might be something very similar.”

Climate-change models further indicate this trend: that the Northeast will experience more extremes when it comes to both droughts and rainstorms.

“That variability, that volatility, can happen within a year. It can happen very quickly,” said Virginia de Lima, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Connecticut office. “You could have a dry period, followed by a wet period, followed by another dry period.”

The uncertainty surrounding the region’s water resources has prompted a firestorm of criticism over UConn’s need for water. To accommodate a $170 million new technology park and an increase in its student population by a third, the university says it needs to pipe in 2 million more gallons of water a day to its main campus in Storrs. One of its proposals to do so, involving the Farmington River, has been particularly controversial.

Critics say that before UConn should be allowed to move forward, Connecticut needs a comprehensive water strategy. The state created various councils and committees for that exact purpose in 2001 but has made little progress in developing an actual plan.

Karl Wagener, director of the state’s Council on Environmental Quality, said UConn’s proposals raise serious concerns about how the university could tap into various water supplies throughout the state. UConn shouldn’t necessarily hold off on its expansion, he said, but the state does need to act.

“It’s been recognized so many times that we need to have comprehensive water planning. So maybe this … controversy will make that happen,” Wagener said.

Two thirsty rivers

The increasingly unpredictable water availability in the state has already posed serious problems in recent years. In 2005, the Fenton River — a small river that runs north-south near UConn’s Storrs campus — was pumped dry as students returned to school after the summer holidays, and demand for water skyrocketed after one of the driest summers on record.

“It was not a good day for the university,” recalled Tom Callahan, vice president of infrastructure and investment planning for UConn.

fenton river

The Fenton River in late January. This stretch was totally empty of water when the river was pumped dry in 2005. (Photos by Neena Satija)

And, he says, it was a wake-up call. UConn now regularly monitors the flow of nearby rivers, and it has spent more than $45 million on water conservation efforts.

But one of those efforts includes shutting down the Fenton River wellfields when the water reaches the low flow rate of 3 cubic feet per second. That leaves only the Willimantic River wellfield as a water source. UConn has had to rely only on the Willimantic for several months during recent summers and falls.

And when UConn adds its technology park, coupled with its planned increase in student enrollment and a $2 billion investment in new or renovated facilities, it will need 2 million gallons more a day in water. That’s in addition to the about 1.25 million gallons a day that UConn uses now.

Since the Fenton River can’t provide that, UConn has proposed tapping into several reservoirs across the state, including two operated by the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) that draw their water from the Farmington River. Residents in the Farmington Valley have vehemently criticized the plan.

“The Farmington River is already under stress,” said Mary Glassman, Simsbury’s first selectwoman. “And the MDC proposal would only make the situation worse.”

On a recent visit to the Pleasant Valley section of the Farmington River’s West Branch in Barkhamsted, four fly fishermen were braving the bitter January cold — an example of the river’s attraction for fishermen worldwide. Dave Sinish, who has lived in the Farmington Valley since 1971 and is active in advocacy for the area, estimated that its flow was 150 cubic feet per second that day; an average flow for the river, though it varies throughout the year, is about 360 cfs, he said.

Last summer, though, fishing was very nearly shut down throughout the watershed. Riverflows were lower than 50 cubic cfs — forcing the fish, already under stress because of more exposure to unusually high temperatures, to crowd into various deeper areas of the river.

“You could walk across the river,” Sinish recalled.

MDC officials have insisted that the reservoirs UConn wants to tap have plenty of extra water and would never need to draw any extra from the Farmington River itself.

“We have 12 million gallons of water a day that is available for new customers of the MDC,” Chris Stone, assistant district counsel for MDC, told WNPR’s John Dankosky on the talk show “Where We Live.”

But those attending a packed public hearing in Farmington last month weren’t buying it.

“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.

A taste of things to come

As climate change takes hold, the controversy over UConn’s thirst could be just one of many future battles.

Farmington river

Fly fishermen in the Farmington River in Barkhamsted in late January.

“Part of the problem is that we get so much rain, and we’re perceived as being a very water-rich area,” said Pat Bresnahan, formerly of UConn’s Water Resources Institute. “But because of our development patterns, the water isn’t always where the development is.”

UConn and the surrounding small, rural town of Mansfield is a prime example. Virtually no water pipelines run into the area, and even Mansfield’s population is dependent on UConn’s wells for water.

“I don’t know that it’s water-poor,” said UConn’s Vice President Tom Callahan of the area. “But it is storage-short … it’s reliant on wellfields and not reservoirs.” The enormous storage capacity of reservoirs makes it easier to plan for drier periods. Reliant only on groundwater, UConn didn’t have that option during the dry summer of 2005, and it still doesn’t have it should another drought occur.

But the MDC proposal would require building a 20-mile pipeline from East Hartford to Storrs. Many argued that this would encourage sprawl along the pipeline and spur further development — and the need for even more water.

“I’m getting a very stomach-turning sense of deja vu right now,” said Susan Masino, who used to live in California, at the public hearing in Farmington. She recalled a development at a university where “what started as just a water line did not end up like that. It was a complete sprawl-generating development in an area where there was no infrastructure originally.”

After a severe drought in the late 1990s, the legislature created a Water Planning Council that now produces annual reports on the state of Connecticut’s water resources. But the goal of the council — to develop a comprehensive water plan for the state — is still far off.

Part of the problem is that developing a plan requires grappling with very tough questions that the South and Southwest regions of the United States have already struggled to answer.

“Who gets water? If there’s competition over water or competition over high-quality water, who gets it first? Or who has to cut back first?” asked Virginia de Lima of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Those aren’t questions many would want to ask, especially as UConn’s expansion plans promise tens of thousands of new jobs for the state.

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