Stream Flow Standards: Water Use Needs vs. Environment

October 6, 2010

The wicked weather that affected most of the eastern seaboard last week brought a heavy amount of much needed rain to our region. The storm, which caused damage and power outages to areas of the state, also swelled many of our waterways to near -or above- capacity. While a good rain storm always makes the flow of water in our rivers and streams rise and become more powerful, they will soon go back to their normal levels.

Connecticut takes the flow standards of its rivers and streams very seriously because they can serve so many different and important functions. In fact, many of these channels don’t just provide ecological benefits, but serve as the main water source for many communities. Balancing the two has been a point of contention for well over 100 years.

In 1893, the legislature authorized the city of Waterbury to increase its water supply by taking water from any source within New Haven and Litchfield County. They chose the Shepaug River and soon after a century old dispute began with the Town of Washington, through which the river flows, about the impact that diversion of water has on the Shepaug.

According to the Office of Legislative Research, residents along the Shepaug in recent years suspected that Waterbury’s withdrawal of water was causing extremely low flow in the summer months, “diminishing the river’s natural beauty, reducing it as a habitat for fish and river organisms and limiting its value for fishing and other recreation.”

This dispute eventually made it to the state Supreme Court, with claims that the city of Waterbury violated the provisions of Connecticut’s Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). CEPA, adopted in 1971, included a provision that set forth minimum water volume requirements for rivers and streams and designated watersheds. The purpose of the law was originally meant to protect the fish stock and a few years later the first regulations were put into place. The CEPA also allows individuals and towns to sue in order to protect the “air, water, or other natural resources from unreasonable pollution, impairment or destruction,” thus setting the stage for the court action.

In 2002, the court found that stream flow laws and regulations were not limited to protecting fish, but were a comprehensive method to accommodate multiple interests. In response to the court’s decision, the legislature passed PA 05-142 which directs the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to “develop standards that balance the needs of humans for their water supply, fire protection, irrigation, manufacturing, and recreation, with the needs of fish and wildlife, which also rely upon the availability of water to sustain healthy natural communities.”

The 2005 law states that “regulations must provide for these needs and requirements and be based, to the greatest extent possible, on natural variations in water flow and water levels and the best available science.” These regulations were to be developed in an open (and lengthy) process that is inclusive of all stakeholders and public input. Over a three and a half year process, working groups that included these stakeholders have put together drafts of the new regulations, which became available in 2009. Since then, numerous public information hearings have been held to review drafts of the proposed new regulations that seek to:

  • Increase Predictability of Classification of stream and river systems and segments
  • Reduce the Overall Complexity of the Regulations
  • Reduce the Cost of Complying with the Regulations
  • Increase the Time for Compliance
  • Focus on Impaired Stream and River Systems

According to the DEP, the proposed Stream Flow Standards and Regulations “are protective of Connecticut’s river and stream systems, and promote better, more efficient management of our water resources and supplies, so that needs, both human and ecological, can be met today and in the future.”

But balancing the needs of the two is not easy. There are many towns (including many of our smaller towns) that are concerned with sufficient water supply, public safety needs and matters related to costs. Outdoor businesses, such as golf courses that require higher amounts of water to maintain their grounds also worry about the possible reduction in the water available to them. Yet allow too much flow and natural ecological systems are threatened.

That is why this process is not an easy one. Later this month the legislature’s Regulation Review Committee will take up this issue, with the hopes of achieving an agreeable solution.