Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sign out side Malloy’s office (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Calls for water to be a “public trust” in the first-ever state water plan are receiving new scrutiny from Connecticut’s water companies, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is letting them know he’s not budging on the language.

A sign appeared Monday outside Malloy’s office stating that “Water is a public trust.”

The sign arrived on the heels of a meeting last week between Malloy administration Chief of Staff Brian Durand and representatives of the water companies and the Connecticut Water Works Association in which they took issue with the public trust designation. Last week, Malloy said he was briefed on the meeting and he’s opposed to removing the “public trust” language from the document.

“It’s been part of our law, I think, for the better part of 30 years,” Malloy added Friday. “Whoever is advocating for that language coming out does not have the best interests of the citizens of our state first and foremost in their mind.”

The governor said the plan was drafted after an 18-month transparent and public process.

“The idea that these same utilities are now trying to derail the entire process in order to protect their private interests and profits should be of concern to every citizen in our state,” Malloy said Monday. “The simple fact is that water is a public trust, and our state statutes have said as much for over 40 years — this plan does nothing to change that, or expand upon it.”

Betsy Gara, who is the head of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns and the Connecticut Water Works Association, said the public trust reference in the plan is “not simply a restatement of existing law.” She said that by tying the statute to how the state balances its water uses, it could be misapplied and construed by the courts and state agencies to expand the public trust doctrine.

It means that grandfathered and existing water rights and diversions, including those that protect water resources, could be reconsidered and curtailed to protect the public trust, Gara said.

She said they’ve been offering up their concerns since January.

The public trust doctrine is a policy that recognizes the public’s inherent right to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. The doctrine states the public’s right to participate, and if necessary, to intervene in actions that put the state’s natural resources at risk of undue harm. The language in the water plan points back to state statute, which says the same, according to Malloy.

Meanwhile, the state’s Water Planning Council received an overwhelming response from the public about recognizing water as a “public trust” as part of the State Water Plan (SWP).

Environmental groups advocated for the adoption of the proposed language on April 17 during a joint public hearing held by the General Assembly’s Committees on Environment, Public Health, Energy & Technology, and Planning & Development.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, said he’s hoping the committees can take a vote this week so the legislature can vote on the plan this year before they adjourn May 9. He said he’s working on compromise language that may be acceptable to both parties.

“Too much work has gone into this,” Steinberg said Tuesday.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, suggested that there is a small window on the calendar during which all four committees can meet Wednesday.

“If not, it’s quite possible we’ll adjourn session without taking action on a water plan that a lot of people have put a lot of time, effort, and resources into,” Aresimowicz said.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said it might have been a mistake to have so many committees involved in the process. He said he’s unable to predict whether they will be able to get together and vote.

Environmental advocates and Malloy say the owners of the water companies have been pressuring the legislature to remove public trust language from the draft plan.

The Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, Connecticut River Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, Save Our Water CT, and Clean Water Action support the reference to water as a “public trust” resource.

The depth of Connecticut’s water resources were last debated by the legislature in 2016 when the Metropolitan District Commission, a regional water authority in Hartford, announced plans to allow Niagara Bottling Co. to take up to 1.8 million gallons of water per day at a discounted rate in order to bottle it for sale. A bill that would have put certain restrictions on how much water the company could take from the reservoir never got called for a vote in the House.

“Connecticut’s water utilities, water company associations and other business interests are actively working to undermine the public’s voice in matters relating to our water,” Louis W. Burch, program director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said.

The April 17 public hearing on the state water plan moved away from the “public trust” debate to focus on ensuring that public drinking water resources are protected during drought periods.

Malloy issued the state’s first-ever Drought Watch in October 2016 for counties in western and central Connecticut, including Fairfield, Hartford, Litchfield, Middlesex, Tolland, and New Haven counties. It was the state’s worst drought since the 1960s.

The proposed State Water Plan creates a framework for sustainable water management, which will protect public drinking water supplies and environmental health.

The legislature will need to enact legislation to adopt the plan and environmentalists don’t want any last-minute changes to derail it.

The almost four-year process utilized extensive public and stakeholder input and scientific data to create the report, costing more than $1 million.

The final report notes that this is the first time Connecticut has had access to scientific data in a consolidated single document that represents water interests in all sectors.

“The State’s drinking water sources are among the highest quality in the United States,” according to the proposed plan.

Some of the recommendations include reaffirming the state’s commitment to using Class A water for human consumption, focusing on estimating flow requirements for each basin to maintain ecological health, and creating awareness of potential economic impacts associated with water management decisions.

The public hearing concluded with an agreement that a brief meeting needed to be scheduled in the coming weeks before a vote is conducted on the adoption of the proposed plan.

Meanwhile, discussions of the state water plan come amid merger talks between a California company and Connecticut Water.

A $750-million merger deal between Connecticut Water Service and a California water utility would lead to the creation of the nation’s third-largest water utility.

The proposed deal is characterized as “a merger of equals” by SJW Group of San Jose, Calif., and Clinton-based Connecticut Water Service.

The deal is still subject to the approval of The Connecticut Water stockholders, the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, the Federal Communications Commission, and antitrust review by the U.S. Justice Department. It is expected to close before the end of 2018 and is not subject to any financing condition.

Eversource said in an April 19 press release that it also made an offer to purchase Connecticut Water for about $748 million.

“We were surprised and disappointed that Connecticut Water’s Board of Directors has been unwilling to engage in discussions with us,” Eversource Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Judge said. “We urge the Board of Connecticut Water to act in the best interests of its shareholders by meeting with us to seriously discuss our compelling proposal.”

Carol Wallace, chairman of the Connecticut Water Board of Directors, said, “Eversource’s proxy campaign is an overt attempt to derail the SJW Group merger of equals and the many benefits it provides in order to promote Eversource’s inferior proposal and distract from its record of chronic underperformance and highly-publicized poor customer service. We will not let Eversource’s unwarranted actions serve as an obstacle to completing the SJW Group merger, which the Board of Directors has determined is in the best interest of Connecticut Water and its stakeholders.”

In June, Eversource completed the purchase of Aquarion Water Company for $1.68 billion.

Connecticut Water serves about 300,000 customers in 56 Connecticut towns.

Christine Stuart contributed to this report.