Arena Creative via shutterstock
Fly fisherman on the Farmington River (Arena Creative via shutterstock)

HARTFORD, CT — After a failed effort in 2018 and controversy that hinged on a single phrase, both chambers of the General Assembly passed the State Water Plan in the final hours of the session.

Close to five years in the making, the plan examines all the state’s water resources and future needs, looking at commercial, agricultural, drinking water and environmental concerns.

But the plan was nearly shelved in 2018 and wasn’t on the radar until the final week of this session when Gov. Ned Lamont requested that it come up for a vote, said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, the House co-chair of the Public Health Committee.

“The best thing you can have is a good plan for water,” Steinberg said. “It’s a useful document that we can use for years to come.”

Steinberg had to scramble in the final days of the session to get the leaders of the Senate and the House to agree to a vote ratifying the plan after last year’s effort to come to a compromise with commercial, agricultural and environmental interests left the plan stalled in committee.

Part of the hitch in 2018 was a phrase inserted by the Water Planning Council charged with drafting the document, in accordance with a 2014 law passed under the administration of Gov. Dan Malloy.

Just before the document was to go to a joint public hearing staged by four legislative committees, the WPC referred to water as “a public trust,” a concept which is codified in state law. The phrase is based on the doctrine that water, air and other natural resources in Connecticut are a public trust that should be preserved and protected for all residents.

Commercial interests, including water companies which sell water for a profit, balked because of the legal ramifications, which would place the public interest before commercial interests in future water planning.

Environmental advocates supported the language as a way to ensure the state’s drinking water and other water resources would be carefully monitored and protected.

“Most water companies in Connecticut and many nationwide are sensitive to their responsibilities as stewards of clear water, both natural and within their systems,” testimony submitted from the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut for the 2018 public hearing stated. “However, many water companies in Connecticut are facing financial problems due to reduced water demand in general and aging infrastructure. They are seeking new ways to raise revenue. They see water as a financial asset and regulations as a costly problem.”

But the Connecticut Water Works Association, made up of water supply utilities throughout the state, saw the last-minute addition another way. The group hired an independent counsel to review the phrase as it pertained to the state water plan and issue a memorandum to legislators on the findings.

“The memorandum, which is currently in draft form and will be shared with policymakers when finalized, confirms that the insertion of this reference may, intentionally or not, result in the misapplication of the public trust doctrine in Connecticut in ways that may undermine the availability of water supplies necessary to meet the public health, safety and economic development needs of the state,” CWWA Executive Director Elizabeth Gara said in her March 2018 testimony to the Environment Committee.

Malloy’s attention to the issue in 2014 turned out to be prescient as the state became entrenched in a prolonged drought in 2016 going into 2017.

Water restrictions and local battles for commercial and environmental control of drinking water in Bloomfield and New Britain made headlines. At one point, New Britain tried to sell Patton Brook Well, located in Southington, to the town of Southington, claiming it was too expensive to fix as the drought lingered through the summer of 2016.  At the same time, New Britain officials came on board with Tilcon’s proposal to mine protected New Britain watershed property in Plainville for decades in exchange for giving the quarry back to the city as a “reservoir.”  Ultimately both proposals failed. Meanwhile, customers of the Metropolitan District Commission were infuriated when the agency agreed to supply a Bloomfield water bottling plant with water at a cut rate.

The WPC was comprised of one representative each from the Public Utility Regulatory Authority, the Department of Public Health, the Office of Policy and Management and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Over the intervening years since receiving its charge, the group executed a significant hearing process allowing competing interests to submit written comments and attend workshops held throughout the state. The result was a long-term State Water Plan that was ratified in the final hours of the 2019 session as an amendment to another water-related bill.

“It was at the eleventh hour,” Steinberg said. “The plan was ratified by the legislature, which it should be. It was a good balance between all the stakeholders. I believe strongly that water is a public trust.”

The ratification of the plan also pleased environmentalists, including Save Our Water CT, a group formed after the Niagara water bottling plant was approved by Bloomfield officials and others who had fought commercial encroachment of water resources in the past few years.

“The State Water Plan reaffirms that water is a sacred public trust resource to be preserved and conserved for present and future generations,” said Paul Zagorsky, the founder of a spirited group of activists that successfully rallied against the Tilcon project. “The public trust doctrine dates back to the Code of Justinian A.D. 535 which was formerly codified with the enactment of the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act in 1971.  Water is the common property of all people, we all own it.”

Lamont has not signed the legislation yet.