In 2012, the University of Connecticut asked water utilities to propose new ways to increase drinking water supply to its Storrs campus.
Those submitting knew that an industrial park was planned, that what is now known as the Storrs Center would be constructed and that UConn was dependent on groundwater wells — which, because of excessive pumping, had dried up the Fenton River in 2005.
Next Generation Connecticut — the $1.5 billion decade-long expansion plan — had not even been proposed. That project increases the number of students and faculty at Storrs by about 7,000 (the size of the town of Essex), dramatically increasing the need for water for housing, labs, restaurants and, most important, fire protection. Conservatively, this new plan will require at least 500,000 gallons a day of additional water.
Incredibly, after the legislature approved the plan this year, UConn failed to modify the request for proposals for the additional amount of water needed to support Next Generation Connecticut.
The Metropolitan District Commission certainly never considered the new demand when it submitted its plan to UConn. Unless the other bidders had a crystal ball, neither did they.
Yet UConn has plowed ahead, adopting a plan it claims will address the next 50 years of water use. In reality, the plan, by ignoring the $1.5 billion expansion, doesn't even address the next five years.
Sadly, both the process and the outcome are examples of our state's myopic attitude toward development. UConn chose a solution that draws water from the Tolland Reservoir (with an area of 0.8 square miles), rather than the MDC's proposal of Barkhamsted and Nepaug Reservoirs (7 square miles). The sizing of the connecting pipes, the capacity of the water treatment plant and the limited access to the water will limit other future growth. Isn't the reason for expanding in Storrs the creation of jobs? How will jobs be created if no expansion other than UConn's is possible?
The MDC was hoping to be the chosen so it could sell more water and ameliorate the increasing prices it is charging customers to comply with the federally mandated and voter-approved clean-water program. This massive effort to cut sewage overflows into the Connecticut River will cost more than $2 billion. The cost is borne by MDC member town water users.
The MDC has also cut the size of its workforce to mitigate costs, going from a peak of more than 756 employees in 2000 to just over 500 now. Unless the MDC limits access to its park facilities, cuts funds given to Riverfront Recapture or sells more water, no rate relief is in sight.
The decision to sell excess water to UConn was made because Connecticut's deindustrialization, coupled with water conservation, has led to a marked decrease in water usage. Conservatively, the MDC reservoirs have a surplus of 12 million gallons of water a day while still providing for an adequate state-mandated margin of safety.
UConn has set up its water supply so that only its needs will be met. That makes no sense.
This state has staggering minority employment problems. More than 47 percent of young minorities in the Hartford area are either unemployed or underemployed. How are they supposed to get to Storrs, to the new opportunities there? Why not put the UConn expansion closer to them — in East Hartford, for example, where UConn located its football stadium? Right next door is an underutilized industrial site, with water, electricity, adequate roads and utilities. The site is easily accessible by buses from Hartford.
We waste billions of dollars and dry out resources like the Fenton River because the state refuses to enact either a statewide water plan or enforce stream-flow regulations. The Fenton wellfields serving UConn have been exempted from stream-flow regulation. They will be utilized by Connecticut Water and UConn as part of the adopted plan.
Hopefully, UConn will prosper, jobs will be created, the water supply will prove adequate, and Connecticut's unemployed will find a way to those jobs. Wishful thinking is not a substitute, however, for planning.
The state should adopt a statewide water plan.
R. Bartley Halloran is district counsel for the Metropolitan District Commission.