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MDC Explains 'Misconceptions' About UConn Water Diversion Plan

Water company officials say they're stewards working to protect water quality and keep down costs.

Metropolitan District Commission officials met with about 50 members of the public Thursday night to clear up “misconceptions and misunderstandings” about the water company’s bid to provide water to the town of Mansfield and University of Connecticut at Storrs. 

Out to defray costs, not to make a profit

Chris Stone, a member of the MDC’s legal staff, said the nonprofit is not interested in pursuing the UConn project to increase profits, rather it’s in the interest of keeping rates low for its customers.

“We want to increase the customer base not because of a profit motivation. It’s because we have costs and costs escalate and we want to stabilize them,” Stone said. 

He was answering one man who asked him to explain why the MDC’s 2008 strategic plan lists increasing customers and accessing the West Branch of the Farmington River among its goals.

Stone said that while the 2008 plan was done under different circumstances, the company ultimately has 12.6 million gallons per day that it can safely sell. 

We have 12 million gallons of water we can sell without violating any agreements,” said Scott Jellison, MDC deputy CEO. “That water would not ever go into the Farmington River; it drains into our reservoirs. So whether we sell that 12 million gallons to someone in East Hartford or through a 20-mile pipeline to Mansfield… the more water we sell the more we reduce rates.”

But Farmington Town Council Chairman Jeff Hogan objected to that reasoning, saying that Farmington MDC customers pay a disproportionate rate, which increased dramatically this year, since Farmington is not a member town.

“Rates in Farmington really have very little to do with this proposal to bring water to new towns,” Stone said. “Our rates have gone up… We have pressures on us with aging infrastructure … and bond rating agencies that told us to place greater burden to cover fixed costs on fixed charges... rather than contingent on usage."

That’s because water usage has declined in the past few years due to the economic slowdown and more energy efficient appliances and consumers, officials said. Climate change was also a recurring concern among residents, but MDC officials said their 50-year margin of safety allows for the area’s worst drought in 150 years. 

A few residents questioned, why then, the river was so low during the dry months last summer. The MDC is obligated, due to the river’s wild and scenic designation, to release 32 million gallons a day into the Farmington River from the Goodwin Dam. During the drought, the MDC first released more than required but eventually stopped the flows — at great financial cost, Stone said — when their water levels dipped too much.

Still, he said, the Nepaug and Barkhamsted reservoirs, from which the water would be diverted to UConn under the MDC’s proposal, contain 40 billion gallons — enough to handle such droughts.

More customers along the way?

Simsbury resident Sally Rieger said her concern was not the 1.3 million gallons per day that would supply UConn and Mansfield but those along the way who might try to tap in. That, she worried, would lead the company to tap into the West Branch of the river much sooner. 

But that wouldn’t be possible, MDC officials said, because the hydraulic pressure in the 20-mile pipeline simply wouldn’t allow it.

“We are proposing bringing water to UConn …that’s how we sized the pipe — not so we could provide water to Coventry or Bolton,” Stone said. 

One resident suggested adding language that precluded the company from taking on additional users along the way and Stone said they could consider it.

FRWA cut out by 1998 agreement

The Farmington River Watershed Association, which many towns fund and rely on to advocate for the river, originally objected to the MDC proposal but was silenced when and MDC lawyer reminded them of their obligation under a 1998 agreement.

Stone explained that when the MDC agreed to divert water to the town of Portland, the FRWA intervened but finally came to an agreement “benefiting all entities.” According to Stone, all three parties agreed the MDC has plenty of water and the MDC and FRWA struck a deal: the watershed association would not again object to a water diversion plan so long as it fell within the company’s specified measure of safety and in exchange, the MDC would investigate groundwater supplies.

Margaret Miner, executive director of Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, urged the MDC to allow the FRWA to speak.

“You’ve taken the lead expert on this watershed out of the dialogue which I just think is a big mistake,” she said.

Another resident agreed, saying, “In the interest of openness, transparency and having nothing to hide, can you give them some kind of limited waiver from the agreement to allow them to participate?”

Stone said he would not, since the MDC had fulfilled its end of the deal, the FRWA should as well.

“We consider ourselves more trustees, custodians of what is a state asset,” Stone said. “We feel we have an obligation that’s greater than just supplying water to our member towns. We feel we have a obligation where there’s a need, to address that need." 

A public hearing on the diversion plan will be held at UConn Health Center on Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. All are welcome to attend and comment on the Environmental Impact Evaluation, which lists the MDC as one of three viable options. Comments close on Jan. 31, after which comments will be responded to and a recommendation made by Milone & McBroom, who conducted the EIE. The state Office of Policy and Management will make the final decision, possibly in late spring or early summer, according to UConn Associate Vice President Tom Callahan. The environmental impact, study and links for commenting can be found here.

Written comments should be sent to: 
Jason M. Coite, 
University of Connecticut – Office of Environmental Policy
, 31 LeDoyt Road, U-3055
Storrs, Connecticut 06269 

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