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New England Looks at Water Use

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By STEPHEN SINGER, Associated Press Writer

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Water is plentiful in New England, but that’s not stopping several states from drafting regulations to ensure it’s available despite droughts, heat spells and development pressures.

Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island rules will regulate so-called stream flows governing how water utilities and businesses can tap into waterways _ while trying to allay environmentalists’ concerns over fish habitats and recreation. Maine has had regulations in force for three years.

“Our state has enough water falling on it that, on paper, there should be enough water for all the users,” said Connecticut Rep. Mary Mushinsky, who backed legislation calling for regulations. “Our system should be sustainable but we’ve never resolved conflicts between users in such a way that it’s predictable or manageable.”

A long-running problem was resolved just this summer, more than 20 years after Waterbury began diverting water from the Shepaug River for municipal use without releasing surplus water from its reservoir, as demanded by environmentalists.

Environmentalists alarmed by the low levels of the Shepaug sued Waterbury in the late 1990s and forced state lawmakers to consider new stream-flow rules. Releases began this summer under a new plan, keeping the river’s water levels at acceptable levels, said Margaret Miner, executive director of Rivers Alliance of Connecticut.

Even after the legislature ordered the DEP to come up with new regulations, another river ran dry. That happened when the University of Connecticut pumped from an adjacent well field that tapped the Fenton River, resulting in a fish kill.

“It was not a highlight of UConn’s environmental stewardship,”  acknowledged Richard Miller, director of environmental policy at the university.

The DEP said managing water resources in Connecticut is challenged by competing uses of water. It warned that climate change could result in more intense storms and longer dry spells in summer that will “likely further challenge where and when water is available.”

Draft regulations drawn up by the DEP set standards for classifying waterways according to depth, volume and velocity of stream flow needed to support and maintain habitats and aquatic life. Four classifications also will account for the level of development in watersheds and the extent of human activity.

Operators of dams will be required to release water to maintain river or stream water levels.

The rules are intended to “make sure there’s enough water behind the dam and enough water for the fish downstream,” said Betsey Wingfield, bureau chief for water protection and land reuse at the Connecticut DEP.
Jason Vokoun, an associate professor in fisheries and wildlife conservation at the University of Connecticut, said the state is responding to what he calls the “lower end of catastrophes” of streams running dry and ecosystems collapsing.

Watersheds and waterways have been under pressure because of what Vokoun called “20 years of unbridled building” in Connecticut before the start of the recession in 2007.

Following criticism earlier this year from water companies and other businesses, state officials modified the proposals, which must be approved by a legislative committee. The DEP said it proposed more flexible rules, including an extension to 10 years from five for compliance.

Water companies are wary, but have not voiced opposition to the regulations.

“You cede a lot of authority to the DEP to determine if the water company is in compliance,”  said Elizabeth Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Water Works Association, an association of public water supply utilities. “You kind of have this sword over your head.”

Water companies are concerned their costs will increase if new rules require changes to dams and water distribution systems or if new sources of water will have to be developed, she said.

Commissioner Laurie Burt of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection said the agency is working toward a set of regulations and hopes to establish goals of proposed water management policies by the end of the year.

“I’d characterize Massachusetts as a water-rich state, but we have to be smarter in how we allocate that resource,” she said.

Water supplies have been stressed by climate change, development pressures and impervious surfaces such as pavement and parking lots that block ground absorption of water, she said.

Rhode Island regulators are drafting rules to conform with legislation enacted last year that could raise the cost of wasting water while offering discounts to those who conserve. The bill is intended to protect the state’s rivers and water supplies from running dry during a drought or hot weather.

“There’s plenty of water, but at certain times and certain areas there are stresses,” said Ken Burke, general manager for the Rhode Island Water Resources Board.

And in Maine, rules have been in place for three years regulating how much water needs to remain in rivers, streams and lakes, said Andrew Fisk, bureau director for land and water quality at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Katy Dunlap, director of the Eastern Water Project at the conservation group Trout Unlimited, said Connecticut’s revised rules are a good compromise.

“One of the biggest problems, particularly in the Northeast, is that we should not see dry river beds,” she said.

“There are abundant water resources. That’s a warning sign every state should heed.”

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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