The state legislature's powerful regulations review committee is expected to vote next week on new, controversial guidelines that will regulate stream flow standards for Connecticut's rivers and streams, raising major concerns from businesses, water utilities, and municipalities whose officials say the rules could lead to water shortages, increased costs and rate increases for consumers.
But state officials and environmentalists say the new guidelines strike an essential balance between protecting stream flow needs to support human uses, while maintaining the ecological health of the state's waters.
The proposed regulations, which were drafted by the state's Department of Environmental Protection in conjunction with other government agencies, environmentalists, and trade associations, update the state's more than 30 year-old stream flow regulations and expand the standards to all rivers and streams in the state, rather than only those stocked with fish, as was the case previously.
The effect would be that water is redirected to more rivers and streams and out of public use.
State lawmakers mandated the revisions in 2005, in direct response to the 10-year long dispute over the Shepaug River in Waterbury. The city diverted water from the river to augment its drinking water supply, causing the stream to run low and threatening its aquatic life.
DEP proposed an original set of stream flow guidelines in 2009, but made changes to them after it received public input, including from the business community. But a broad-based coalition of farmers, business groups, golf course operators, realtors, municipal leaders and water companies still aren't happy with the revised guidelines and are calling for lawmakers to reject them and direct DEP to address its "fatal flaws."
"These regulations, if enacted, will result in severe water supply shortages in many communities, jeopardizing the public health and safety of Connecticut residents as well as Connecticut's economy," said Elizabeth Gara, the executive director of the Connecticut Water Works Association (CWWA).
Under the regulations, communities could face up to 40 percent reductions in public water supplies, Gara said, and impose hundreds of millions of dollars in new costs on Connecticut water customers because suppliers will be required to make significant modifications to dams and distribution systems, and develop new sources of water supplies.
DEP spokesman Dennis Schain said the agency believes its proposed guidelines strike a fair balance.
"What we are proposing is doable," Schain said. "What we wanted to do is make sure people have the have water they need, and the ecosystem has the water it needs."
Schain conceded that the regulations will require some infrastructure upgrades by water utilities. But he also said water companies make infrastructure upgrades all the time. "They will have to take it into consideration when they do long-term planning," Schain said.
The legislature's 14-member regulations review committee is voting on the guidelines Oct. 26. If they are not rejected by eight or more committee members, they go into law, Gara said.
The new rules would require all rivers and streams in the state to be classified into one of four classes, with each class representing a different balancing of human use and ecological health priorities.
In class "one" waters, priority is given to protecting ecological health. In class "four" waters, support of human activities is weighted most heavily.
Once classification is complete, a process that will likely take at least five years, a series of requirements are imposed on dam operators that divert water away from the streams. Essentially, dam owners will be required to make minimum water releases and/or potentially limit their ground water withdrawals from streams or rivers during certain times of the year in order to support stream ecology. The amount of water they have to release, and the time of year they have to release it, will vary based on a stream's classification.
After receiving public input, DEP has made changes to its original proposal that was reported by the Hartford Business Journal last year. For example, DEP has doubled the compliance time frame to 10 years and revised the requirements relative to groundwater withdrawals.
Rather than imposing strict limits on groundwater withdrawals, DEP requires operators to minimize impact on stream flow to the maximum extent practicable, Gara said.
But Gara said the changes don't go far enough and create great uncertainty for businesses.
"It doesn't address concerns regarding water supply deficits, cost, the difficulty in developing new sources of water supply or economic recovery," Gara said.