PO Box 163, Fairfield CT 06824

Opinion: Water supply not ready for expanded housing development

Peter McGuinness
May 5, 2021
Updated: May 5, 2021 10:05 a.m.

As affordable housing discussions continue and legislative bills emerge in Hartford with the goal of generating more housing construction and development in order to increase the supply of available homes, another, and just as important, discussion is ongoing regarding how exactly to supply the southwestern Fairfield County area with an adequate supply of water to meet its needs.

Under discussion is an application by Aquarion Water Co. before the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to divert an additional 6,940,000 gallons of water per day through the Bridgeport Main Southwest Regional Pipeline to the local region (Darien, Greenwich, Stamford and New Canaan). According to conservationists, fishing sports groups and river advocates, who generally acknowledge the region’s need for more water but oppose the size of the water diversion, water is a public trust that needs to be protected and the Mill River, especially, needs to be protected as it is an active and robust trout habitat.

According to the Aquarion application filing, the urgency to its application is that if this water diversion permit is not approved, the southwestern Fairfield County region will “continue to experience frequent drought restrictions, be at a high risk of running out of water, and Aquarion will not be able to meet (its) full reservoir release requirements.”

Legally and theoretically, at least, there should be some coordination between housing development and water supply planning. At least to most people, the two issues are correlated in that the more housing that is built in a community, the more water that community will need. That planning coordination, at least theoretically, comes in the form of Section 25‐33h‐1 of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies which requires each Water Utility Coordinating Committee, a group comprised of water supply engineers, experts and water company officials, to prepare long-range regional integrated reports. The reports are a process to create an inventory of existing conditions and the identification of any water supply issues, deficiencies and needs and comprise 5‐, 20‐, and 50‐year planning horizons.

In the latest March 20, 2018 plan, issued under the auspices of the engineering firm Milone & MacBroom, the WUCC panel of engineers and the expert planning body projected population, historical and projected water demand by user category (e.g., residential) for our Southwest Water Complex network of reservoirs and water tributaries which provide water to Darien, Greenwich, Stamford and New Canaan.

It is interesting to note here that the mid-term projections in our regional report stated that the population in Darien would decrease by a total of 1.3 percent over a projected 15-year period in the future; and the population of Greenwich would decrease by 5.2 percent over the same period.

The stated reason for the immediate Aquarion water diversion application is that the Connecticut Department of Transportation projects that our region’s population will increase by 19,000 people, “primarily in Stamford,” according to Aquarion, and the increased water flow is critically needed to handle that population growth and incorporate a proper “margin of safety.”

Regardless of the Department of Transportation’s projections that Aquarion is using, the roadmap for water planning in Connecticut is a region’s integrated water plan, and one clear conclusion to the 2018 plan for our region is projected to be structurally in a deficit scenario in terms of water supply. This assumes a relatively stable population over a mid- and long-term period for Darien, Greenwich and New Canaan and no adverse environmental impact or climatic global warming changes to our region’s water supply.

Specifically, the 5-year projection from 2018 is that the southwest Fairfield County system will have a deficit of 3.3 million gallons per day. The 20-year projection is that we will have a deficit of 3.9 million gallons per day. And the 50-year projection is that we will have a deficit of 5.2 million gallons per day.

Clearly, the Aquarion application is an indication that they are projecting an even greater immediate need than what the integrated plan has identified.

Is it no wonder that in the past few years we have been placed on summer water restrictions or that in November 2020, the Putnam Reservoir was only 33 percent full? Or that in 2016, the region was down to just six weeks of water supply and temporary above-ground emergency water pipelines were then hastily installed along the Merritt Parkway?

Aquarion’s immediate response now has been to file special water diversion permit applications to divert water to the area. These applications have met local opposition. An application made in 2019 to divert water from Wilton’s aquifer and the Norwalk River was met with an “overflow” “standing room” crowd, opposing the diversion permit, at the Wilton Library on Feb. 26, 2019.

The 6.9 million gallons of water diversion permit application now under DEEP review was scheduled for a public hearing date May 4. Conservationists were expected to make a case that the Aquarion application request exceeds the needs of the region.

DEEP water diversion permits are limited in time, limited in scope and are subject to conditions. Also, there can certainly be no assurance that water diversion permits for any future increased water demand will be approved nor whether these other water sources will have any excess water available.

More importantly, neither the 2018 integrated plan water projections nor the current Aquarion permit application incorporate any assumptions on unbridled new home construction due to increased “as of right” housing development mandates or accessory dwelling units. In effect, these various zoning bills under consideration by the General Assembly encourage unbridled housing development and growth without any consideration of water supply issues; and do not take into account our region’s structural water deficit as projected in a 225-page engineering report that our General Assembly has mandated be produced under the auspices of the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

This very disjointed planning process between water supply planning and local and regional land use planning efforts has long been recognized. A quote from the 2018 Integrated Plan illustrates this point:

“A specific issue related to watershed development identified by WUCC members includes the State’s Affordable Housing Appeals Procedure (CGS 8‐30g). The concern is that the law as written does not give consideration to source water protection, as it allows for higher-density development to occur in watershed areas that may be zoned for lower-density uses.”

What all this illustrates is that zoning and development must be closely coordinated with the necessary resources to support any development: local water resources, local sewer systems or lack thereof, local infrastructure and local roads. These are certainly all very local issues. However, what makes the water issue unique is that according to stated Connecticut policies, the supply of water is “finite,” whereas sewers and roads can always be built at great cost to our towns.

Who exactly is looking at the water consumption modeling and projections for our region, especially in light of potential unbridled housing development? Is it the water utility, the Department of Public Health, DEEP, the Office of Policy and Management, the proponents of zoning changes or ultimately the Legislature? Southwestern Connecticut is an important economic driver of the state and water planning needs to be rational and thoughtful. Letting this issue fall between the cracks should not be an option.

While water conservation measures are certainly an important part of the solution to our constrained water resource, to allow builders, building contractors and real estate speculators to make unfettered development determinations, as of right, fully enabled by the proposed bills, as to how much to build, how dense to build, and where to build will mean that someday, with unbridled housing and building growth, and unplanned population growth and shifts, we may turn on our very own kitchen faucet and find that, indeed, the well is dry.

Peter McGuinness is an attorney who lives in Darien.
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Peter McGuinness