The following letter was sent by the Simsbury Conservation Commission to Metropolitan District Commission officials on March 5 in response to MDC's defense of a proposed 20-mile pipeline that would divert approximately 2 million gallons of water daily from the Farmington River basin to the University of Conn. campus and the town of Mansfield:
Dear Mr. Sheehan:
The Simsbury Conservation Commission urges the Metropolitan District Commission to take all reasonable and prudent steps to institute a program under which water in the Farmington River East Branch reservoirs which is in excess of the district’s current water supply needs is released to the river in a measured way in order to enhance and normalize flows in the river’s mainstem, rather than seeking new customers in UCONN and Mansfield and selling the water to them. Our reasoning is as follows.
Section 6-4 of the MDC Charter authorizes (one might even say encourages) the district to “use any part of the water therein stored, which is not needed for its water supply system, for the purpose of returning to said Farmington river at convenient times water… for the purpose of maintaining in said river a more constant flow regardless of seasonal variation….” We think the legislative intent is clear.
Statements made by MDC representatives in support of the proposal to divert water to UCONN and Mansfield affirm that there is excess water, at least five million gallons per day and perhaps as much as twelve million gallons per day.
That the water is needed by the river is confirmed by a December 2012 memorandum from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Inland Fisheries Division, which observed, “[T]he East Branch of the Farmington River from the mouth of the mainstem Farmington River upstream to Lake McDonough outlet dam (1.1 miles) and the Nepaug River from the mouth at confluence with the mainstem Farmington River upstream to the Nepaug Reservoir Outlet Dam (0.9 miles) do not meet water quality standards for aquatic life and recreation.” The East Branch of the Farmington and the Nepaug River have long been prominently featured on the state's 303(d) list of impaired waters. Citizens of Simsbury and other towns along the mainstem of the river have long complained of low flow conditions.
The DEEP memorandum cited above points out that “[i]n previous review of MDC Water Supply Plans (1997, 2003, and 2008) the Inland Fisheries Division encouraged the MDC to undertake a comprehensive analysis of water allocation throughout their service area. That analysis should … be used to develop a water management strategy to balance consumptive water supply needs while providing sufficient instream flows to restore riverine habitat to the extent possible.” The thrust of state policy in the past 15 years has been that surplus water should be used at least in part to provide relief to low-flow streams in the watershed. Similarly, the new state Plan of Conservation and Development now before the legislature calls for balancing the competing needs of water for human consumption, habitat sustainability and the like. We share the view that the condition of the river bespeaks the need for a rebalancing in favor increased flows to promote habitat restoration and, coincidentally, recreation.
The other principal source of water for the mainstem of the river is the West Branch, which is already regulated, in part, to support instream flows. However, in recent times the amount of water released from the West Branch has fallen far short of predicted and needed levels. As you know, even the West Branch is suffering from low flows and high water temperatures.
Uncertainty about the prospective impact of climate change on the river should make the district and policymakers very reluctant to enter a commitment to UCONN and Mansfield. Caleb Saville wrote, “It is axiomatic in hydraulic engineering that the worst flood and the most severe drought will someday be surpassed.” In its comments on the proposed diversion, the United States Department of Interior, National Park Service, wrote, “Evidence we see on the Farmington River includes recurring summer drought conditions and declining water levels due to decreased rainfall and snowmelt and groundwater recharge during critical periods….These factors… have not been analyzed or addressed in considering the available water supply of the Farmington basin.” The Inland Fisheries Division memorandum opined, “Increased withdrawals of 1.93 mgd may further exacerbate already degraded downstream riverine habitats in both the East Branch Farmington and Nepaug Rivers.” Once committed to UCONN and Mansfield, the district would be hard pressed to reverse course even if conditions worsened. On the other hand, the measured releases that we propose could be suspended or discontinued when conditions required.
We appreciate the business exigencies faced by the district. The MDC strategic plan is forthright in stating its objective of growing its customer base in order to sell more water. Enrolling UCONN and Mansfield as customers and selling them what now looks like excess water might seem like the business school prescription for declining revenues. We think it is an irresponsible approach from an environmental point of view and inconsistent with the MDC’s duty of stewardship of the river. Moreover, the strategic plan language “to optimize use of water assets and grow revenue” suggests that the water is the MDC’s asset. It is not. The MDC does not own the water; it is a public trust resource.
The river is suffering from low flows. The MDC’s failure to use East Branch water releases to enhance and normalize those flows as the legislature invited it to do in Section 6-4 of the Charter is arguably one cause of the problem. We urge you to take steps to use the excess water in the East Branch to enhance and normalize instream flows in the mainstem. The alternative, committing the water to UCONN and Mansfield, would make it permanently unavailable either to support the river or to serve your existing water supply customers if climate conditions continue to worsen.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Simsbury Conservation Commission
By Margery Winters
Its Vice Chairman