By Robert Miller, Sunday, April 7, 2019
Photos: Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media
Who owns the rain? Who owns the water?
Long Island Soundkeeper Bill Lucey asked those questions in February at a public hearing over the Aquarion water company’s plan to pump as much as a million gallons a day from a well in the Cannondale section of Wilton. After facing strong opposition to the plan, Aquarion withdrew it in March.
There is a fairly straightforward answer to that question — the people do.
According to a law the General Assembly passed in 1971, the state’s air, water and natural resources are a “public trust.” Given that, the law says “each person is entitled to the protection, preservation and enhancement of the same.”
For the second straight legislative session, the same General Assembly has blinked when it comes to approving the state water plan — a comprehensive document that took three years and innumerable, exhausting meetings among many parties to produce.
Why? Because the plan commits to nearly a half-century of law and calls water in the state — drinking water, rivers and streams alike — a public trust.
Water utilities fear that phrase might stymie their future for drinking water development. So when the plan came before the legislature in 2018, it went nowhere.
That inaction forced then-Gov. Dannel Malloy to implement the plan by executive order. But Malloy also asked lawmakers to consider the plan again, without changes.
And again, those two little word — “public trust” — have hung things up again. Gov. Ned Lamont, who campaigned on his commitment to the state’s environment, may have to step in to decide on the plan’s future.
Margaret Miner, the executive director of the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut and a person who took part in many of the long meetings that produced the plan, said that contrary to Malloy’s order, factions in the General Assembly wanted to rewrite parts of the plan “before it even got there.”
“People were saying, ‘We can change it,’” Miner said.
Supporters of the plan have resisted renegotiating wording that took three years and several public hearings to finish. The phrase “public trust” still is the major sticking point.
“It seems their issue isn’t with the plan itself,” said Dave Bjerklie, the executive director of the Pomperaug River Watershed Coalition. “It’s a fear the idea of a public trust will be misconstrued.”
But, Bjerklie said, it isn’t a new concept.
“It’s there in the General Statutes,” he said.
And for people who spoke against the Aquarion plan to pump millions of gallons from a wellfield near the Norwalk River, the concept of water being a public trust became very real.
“We felt it at a very visceral level,” said Louise Washer, president of the Norwalk River Watershed Association. “All the work we’ve been doing to restore the watershed could have gone away.”
And while the plan is now in effect — thanks to Malloy’s order — it’s still lacking legislative approval.
That is both typical of politics these days and disconcerting. Given the droughts and downpours climate change may bring to the state, it might seem everyone could agree planning for the future is a good idea.
Which is what the plan does. It takes the scientific data available and studies the water resources throughout the state. It reaffirms the state’s goal of keeping its drinking water standards the highest in the nation. But it also looks at the state’s insufficient water conservation efforts and addresses how some streams and rivers now face the stress of running low, or even dry, when droughts hit.
“It’s a huge step forward,” said Lynn Werner, executive director of the Housatonic Valley Association, of the plan.
Werner said that when the rain falls — that public trust from the skies — it feeds reservoirs and aquifers. But it also feeds rivers and lakes, creating habitat for fish, frogs, and salamanders. It creates the world we live in.
“The public water supply is paramount,” she said. “It’s the first resource we depend upon.”
Washer, of the Norwalk River Watershed Association, also said this concept of water being a public trust has to extend into the thinking of town leaders and individuals as well. It means passing drought preparedness plans at the local level. It means teaching a water conservation ethic to make people see that daily lawn watering to achieve supreme green is not necessarily the way forward in a dry season.
“You don’t think about it,” she said. “But it’s all connected.”
Contact Robert Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org