Water-Bingeing UConn Needs To Sober Up

The fervor with which the University of Connecticut clamors to slake its unquenchable thirst for more water is only a step removed from its undergraduates' thirst for beer.

UConn officials argue their cause soberly, but the institution's behavior over the past decade reveals an ethos not unlike Spring Weekend. UConn habitually operates outside the law with a sense of invincibility, generally gets what it wants and is bailed out of trouble by taxpayers.


UConn officials Richard Miller and Thomas Callahan argue that UConn needs 2 million more gallons of water per day to feed a technology park planned for the Storrs North Campus. They claim the recent Environmental Impact Evaluation was "transparent" and "deliberative."

These claims require a sober response.


First, UConn's management of its water system and calculation of demands have been anything but transparent. UConn created the present "crisis" with a decade's worth of denial. My article, "Big Bad Neighbor" (Northeast, Sunday Courant of March 17, 2002) highlighted the looming water deficit.

That article detailed watershed abuses and exposed dangerously distorted projections in which UConn overstated its water supply (based on unrealistic diversion permits for the two rivers that feed its wellfields) and understated its demand (by denying future growth). The article found, further, that nobody at UConn was in charge of environmental matters, and warned that UConn's growth could easily outpace the local water supply.

UConn then hired Mr. Miller, a Northeast Utilities attorney, to direct environmental affairs. The school took steps to conserve water, but continued its fantasy projections until September 2005, when the Fenton River was sucked bone dry, killing an estimated 10,000 fish and putting the lie to UConn's unrealistic claims of how much it could safely pump.

As recently as 2011, when Mansfield voters were asked to approve plans for Storrs Downtown, the ersatz New England hamlet that UConn promoted, Messrs. Callahan and Miller assured townspeople there was adequate water for that project and others, as well as development of North Campus.

Only after Storrs Downtown was approvd did UConn and town officials reveal the new technology park. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy endorsed the project, giving it credibility and momentum. Suddenly, a "crisis" existed. More water was needed.

But would Malloy have approved had UConn officials not effectively concealed the problem? A massive transfer of water from one region to another far exceeds the narrow parameters of the environmental evaluation. The decision must not be dictated by any organization's self-interest.

Hartford's Metropolitan District Commission, which wants to sell water outside Greater Hartford, joined in aggressively promoting a scheme to pipe water to Storrs. Beyond the estimated $51 million cost of the pipeline, the environmental costs of a substantial inter-basin transfer of water are of special concern with droughts and other extreme weather becoming commonplace.

Those opposing ruination of the "wild and scenic" West Branch of the Farmington River have spoken out fiercely against the MDC plan, as have those concerned about increasing pollution of the Willimantic River.

It's not too late for sobriety. UConn could show true environmental leadership by living sustainably within its water budget and reining in its growth.

In the meantime, legislation is needed to bring UConn into legal, not "voluntary" compliance, with the 27 laws that govern Connecticut's water systems operators. Through a loophole, UConn is exempt from these laws, which require actual transparency, stewardship of watersheds, accurate projections of supply and demand, and public accountability.

One example of poor stewardship is particularly revealing. UConn has a toxic waste holding facility located on the Fenton River watershed. Everyone agrees it should be moved to a safer location. But because UConn falls outside the existing law, the facility remains. A bill raised in 2003 to close the loophole was defeated by UConn's lobbying.

This record of stewardship and intransigence raises questions about the toxins likely to be generated at the planned technology park. Can a more appropriate regional site be found, where water is plentiful and infrastructure is in place, and where a technology park might have a strong synergistic effect with less disruption to the environment? A site, for instance, closer to Bradley Airport and planned rail connections, with shuttle buses to the UConn campuses — somewhat on the model of North Carolina's Research Triangle?


It is not too late to stop UConn from chug-a-lugging other communities' water and to look at the larger regional picture, with more mature options in mind.

David Morse of Mansfield is a retired journalist, author of "Dry Times for UConn" (Sept. 18, 2005 Northeast Magazine), as well as "Big Bad Neighbor," cited above.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Mansfield residents voted to approve the Storrs Downtown project.

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