Why do we need stream flow regulations in CT? 

DSCF4858Because our streams work hard!  The Farmington River, like many CT rivers, serves multiple purposes for multiple users:  drinking water, hydropower, irrigation, industry, fishing and boating, scenic beauty, and life support for many species of plants and animals.  Taking out too much water for one purpose can have a devastating impact on other important uses.  In 2011, CT took a step forward in protecting adequate flows in our state’s streams by enacting new statewide streamflow regulations.  There’s more to do (such as protect our groundwater supplies better), but we are on the right track.  The article below comes from Rivers Alliance of Connecticut and explains more about the process and what the regulations actually do.


By Margaret Miner, Rivers Alliance of CT

DSCF4453On December 12, 2011, regulations to conserve streamflows in Connecticut waterways became the law of the state.  These regulations represent a vital step forward in protecting rivers and streams for today and tomorrow. Connecticut has now taken the lead in New England and very likely the nation in officially recognizing that naturally flowing rivers and streams are essential to life, health, and economic wellbeing.

To have water in the future, we must protect the water we have now. Draining streams dry for short-term convenience endangers the natural world and all its creatures (including us). For quality of life and economic wellbeing, there is no more valuable resource than water. It is liquid gold.

Connecticut has been trying to devise a fair, effective flow regulation since the 1970s. In 1979, a minimum-flow regulation was enacted, but it was so minimal and so complicated that it had little effect. In 1982, the state passed the Water Diversion Policy Act, which put reasonable limits on most new takings of water but included a giant loophole that grandfathered “rights” to hundreds of millions of gallons of water. (Whether these grandfathered claims to water were really “rights” was never entirely clarified.)

A decade and a half later, threats to water flows led to two prominent legal cases involving the Shepaug River in Litchfield County and the Mill River in New Haven. The legislature created the Water Planning Council in 2001 in the hope that the state agencies with jurisdiction over water could come up an acceptable method of water allocation to forestall complex and expensive litigation.

In 2004, frustrated river advocates, including Rivers Alliance, Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited, began a campaign to persuade the legislature and the agencies — primarily the Departments of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Department of Public Health (DPH) — to support a law to protect streamflows. Newly appointed DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy took the lead. Water utilities manifested a willingness to negotiate.

In 2005, with agreement from all major stakeholders, the legislature unanimously (!) passed An Act Concerning the Minimum Water Flow Regulations. From 2005 to the end of 2011, extremely difficult bargaining and politicking led finally to the regulation now in place.

These are its good features:

  • It affirms the public trust in water, which requires a balance between water consumption and water conservation.
  • It applies to all watercourses.
  • It applies to all major water-supply reservoirs.
  • It requires variable flows based upon the seasonal flows that are natural to streams.
  • It creates a classification system for river segments, from high-quality water flows (Class 1) to poor-quality water flows (Class 4), thus enabling long-term planning.
  • It sets a goal of 75% natural flow for high-quality (Class 2) rivers and fairly protective, variable releases for segments below water-supply reservoirs.
  • It guarantees that water supplies will be adequate for public health and economic wellbeing.
  • It is flexible, taking into account special needs in times of drought and special conditions faced by individual utilities.
  • It provides for public participation in river classification and planning.

These are its weaknesses:

  • It does not regulate groundwater diversion, that is, wellfield pumping that draws down streams.The potential for stream impairment or destruction by pumping is high, as witness the extreme damage to the Fenton River at the University of Connecticut in 2005. Lawmakers were clear that they would not pass the regulation if it included groundwater, but several pledged to work to introduce a regulation on groundwater as soon as possible.
  • There are a number of significant exemptions, including agriculture and golf courses.
  • The timeline for compliance is very long, possibly five years for classification, ten years for compliance, with extensions readily available.
  • The regulation is complicated and will be difficult to monitor.

The regulation was rejected three times in 2010-2011 by the General Assembly’s Regulation Review Committee before finally passing unanimously in November 2011. Negotiations were intense throughout 2011, managed by Betsey Wingfield of the new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Participants included representatives from DPH, Connecticut Water Works Association, Aquarion Water Company, Connecticut Water Company, South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, Wallingford Water Department, Connecticut Business and Industry Association, Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, Housatonic Valley Association, Nature Conservancy, and Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

Invigorated by weekly supplies of homemade cakes and other sweets, the participants reached consensus on the following knotty issues (put in bullet and sub-bullet form by DEEP).

  • Definitions, including adequate margin of safety (MOS), releases, and outlet structures;
  • Exemption provisions including golf courses, small watersheds that naturally yield little water and certain man-made conveyances;
  • Release rule criteria and considerations for Class 4 stream segments;
  • Classification certainty for existing public water supply diversions,  added consideration for classification of potential future water supplies, expanded consultation with other state agencies (including the Department of Economic and Community Development), and additional criteria considering economic impacts, ecological benefits, and adequate MOS as considerations in finalizing classifications;
  • Protection of MOS of water utilities while moving long term to full release by:
    o   A tiered reduction of releases, with conditions, to provide relief to water utilities that would be left with an inadequate supply to meet current demands,  including a self implementing  50% reduction and a greater than 50% reduction subject to implementing an approved plan;
    o   Flexibility to reduce releases by 15% during a dry spring in order to maintain reservoir storage for water supply and summer releases;
    o   Opportunity for extension of time to comply with release rules;
    o   Opportunity to obtain renewable variances to address temporary hardships;
    o   Opportunity for customized release requirements through site specific release plans; and
  • Simplified reporting requirements including added flexibility and alternative methods.

The regulation and its history can be viewed at the DEEP website. Do a search on DEEP and then “streamflow regulation.”

The price of making this work will be eternal vigilance, but the reward will be a unique state water management plan that includes an allocation for the environment. Streamflow protection has been the top priority for Rivers Alliance since 2002, and we are delighted to have something to be vigilant about.

Next step: rules for wellfields!

Margaret Miner, Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, December 2011