Forum explores water's impact upon economic development

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Tue., Aug. 6, 2013
A July 29 forum discussed potential solutions to water supply issues resulting from UConn's proposed expansion projects. Shown here is the Eagleville Dam. Photo by Melanie Savage.
A July 29 forum discussed potential solutions to water supply issues resulting from UConn's proposed expansion projects. Shown here is the Eagleville Dam. Photo by Melanie Savage.

As a decision loomed regarding the source of additional water to supply expansion at the University of Connecticut, the League of Women Voters of Northeast Connecticut and the Connecticut Institute of Water Resources held an educational forum on the subject on July 29 at the Willimantic Elks Lodge. UConn needs additional water to support expansion, including the building of a planned technology park. Windham Water Works, the Connecticut Water Co. and the Metropolitan District Commission had been identified as the three potential sources for this water. (On Aug. 6, UConn announced that Connecticut Water had been chosen as the provider).

The purpose of the July 29 event, entitled “Regional Water: Where Is It? Who Uses It? Who Decides?” was “to promote understanding of local water resources and how their use relates to regional planning for water and economic development,” according to a press release.

The forum drew more than 100 residents from the surrounding communities. There were three panel discussions, which included time for questions from audience members: Regional Water Resources; Regional Water Systems; and Water, Economic Development and Regional Planning. Panelists included water experts from UConn, official representatives from Windham Water Works, Connecticut Water Company and UConn, and representatives from the Economic Development Commissions of Windham, Tolland and Mansfield.

During her welcoming remarks, Gloria Bent from the League of Women Voters said that the supply and control of water had become a regional issue, and suggested that “it will soon become a state, national and global issue.”

Glenn Warner, director of the Connecticut Institute of Water Resources and a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at UConn, provided a brief overview of the hydrologic process, including rainfall, evaporation and transpiration.

Connecticut currently receives approximately 48 inches of rainfall per year on average, said Warner, and between 22 and 26 inches of that rainfall return to the stream flow.

Jana Butts Roberson, town planner in Brooklyn and formerly with the Windham Region Council of Governments, identified the three major drainage systems in the state of Connecticut: the Connecticut, the Thames and the Housatonic rivers. She also identified the three potential sources for additional water for UConn that are currently on the table. One solution would involve a 5-mile connector from sources controlled by the Windham Water Works. A second solution proposes a 7-mile connection from sources controlled in Tolland by the Connecticut Water Company. The Metropolitan District Commission had proposed two potential routes from East Hartford - one involving an 18-mile route, the other a 20-mile route.

Mike Callahan, chair of the Windham Water Commission, suggested that water supply was not an issue for Connecticut, especially relative to parts of the western half of the country, which might see less than 15 inches of rainfall per year. “In Connecticut, most people have easy access to high-quality water,” said Callahan. The challenge here, said Callahan, is dealing with a “parochial” political system when one area requires more water than another.

Tom Callahan, associate vice president of infrastructure and planning at UConn, said that a 2005 over-pumping of the Fenton River well fields served as an eye-opener for the university. In September of 2005, a combination of dry weather and the students’ return to campus resulted in approximately one quarter of a mile of the Fenton River being pumped completely dry. At the time, DEP officials estimated that it would take the fish population years to recover from the damage. As a result, “We changed the way we’re doing business at the university,” said Callahan. Callahan said that the university now shuts down the Fenton River well field when it reaches a critical level that might be considered harmful to wildlife. He pointed out that the university has reduced water usage over the past 10 years, despite an increase in population.

An audience member questioned whether the state considered anything other than financial costs when making decisions regarding large-scale projects such as the one at UConn. Bill Hettinger, chair of the Windham Economic Development Commission, suggested that through its involvement in such matters, “the state gets into the business of picking winners and losers.” Another audience member questioned whether exporting Windham’s water could affect the area’s potential for future economic growth. Hettinger suggested that the transfer of water from one area to another could result in pulling development from the urban core to green spaces, citing the Eastbrook Mall as an example.

Speaking briefly at the end of the forum were state representatives Susan Johnson (D-49), Gregg Haddad (D-54), Linda Orange (D-48) and Sam Belsito (R-53). Johnson emphasized the importance of regionalization, suggesting that towns needed to increasingly cooperate and share resources rather than compete for them.

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