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Environmental Steward Is Worried New DEP Regulations Will Impact Local Watershed



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Environmental Steward Is Worried New DEP Regulations Will Impact Local Watershed

By John Voket

Local Councilman James Belden, an environmental steward who also serves as president of the Candlewood Valley Trout Unlimited chapter, and is founder and president of Pootatuck Watershed Association, is expressing significant reservations about newly enacted state stream flow regulations.

Mr Belden, who has a professional background in urban planning and earth science, said the newly adopted Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulations appeared to change substantially during their refinement over the past year. Connecticut is among several states that took up drafting regulations aimed at ensuring enough water is available to state residents and businesses 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 such 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 Representative 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 neighboring 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.

Competing Users

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 Mr 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, a move the DEP said should provide more flexible rules, including an extension to ten years from five for compliance.

“The new version going to regulatory review now has changed from the first version,” Mr Belden told The Bee during a recent interview on the subject. “And it was substantially changed and influenced by the water utilities.”

Groundwater Regs Removed

Mr Belden believes that by providing more time to implement the regulations, water courses in Newtown and many streams throughout the state could be overdrawn.

The local councilman is also concerned because the DEP removed regulations regarding groundwater.

“On the good side, there is an avenue to implore the DEP Commissioner to engage water systems that have impact, and to require them to be managed differently to minimize impact.”

Mr Belden said Newtown is extremely proactive when it comes to testing and mitigating environmental concerns that could harm the Pootatuck, which is one of just a few Class A native trout breeding habitats remaining in Connecticut. The Pootatuck is also the feeder for Newtown’s sole source aquifer.

“We do everything from temperature to stream flow to chemistry testing,” Mr Belden said, adding that the data is comprehensive enough to take to the DEP Commissioner to request some strategic order regarding stream flow.

Immediately, Mr Belden conceded, the new regulations will have minimal influence. But in the long term, he is concerned they could have significant impact following long-term withdrawals on the Pootatuck.

“All users matter,” he said. “The resource itself, along with residential and commercial users are stake holders in the stream flow situation.”

He said sustaining the ecosystem is critical in relation to “the water we have and preserve.”

“In Connecticut, the [current] system requirements cause more tapping of small streams and aquifers than rivers like the Housatonic,” he said. “So we’re entirely dependent on these small streams, some of which are so fragile you can jump over them in places.”

Ultimate Consumers

Of course, Mr Belden’s main worry is human consumption.

“Over time I think these regs will have to be amended to increase the scope of protections, but these will be the best we can get for awhile,” he said. “These provide a way to recognize we’ve overallocated our water permitting, without impacting the utilities.”

As far as the current DEP modifications are concerned, Mr Belden said it appears that “there’s just not enough will to take away the registered rights” of the water utilities.

At the state level, 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.

Katy Dunlap, director of the Eastern Water Project at Trout Unlimited, agreed with Mr Belden, saying 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.”

Associated Press content was used in this report.

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