It was standing room only at Wilton Library Tuesday night for a meeting hosted by the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to provide information to residents and hear feedback about Aquarion‘s application to withdraw up to 1 million gallons of water per day from Wilton’s aquifer and the Norwalk River. Concerned Wilton residents–and others from neighboring towns like Norwalk and even Greenwich–overwhelmingly spoke in opposition to the proposal.

The meeting wasn’t a formal public hearing, although officials from DEEP were on hand to listen to community feedback as part of the application review process. In addition, Aquarion officials said they were at the meeting voluntarily in what they said was a show of “transparency and openness” to explain to town residents what their objectives and goals are with the application.

Dan Lawrence, Aquarion’s director of engineering and planning, presented the company’s explanation for why they want to begin pumping water from Wilton to serve customers both locally in town as well as in other Fairfield County communities. He also explained that the company had put together a mitigation plan to address any impacts the proposal will have on surround ecology and neighboring wells.

He said Aquarion is making all information it gathers available on a dedicated website.

Lawrence said that, “having a local source in Wilton provides an opportunity for resiliency as an alternate source. Also gives us an opportunity to think about drought and the need for multiple sources.” Overall, the goal of activating the well and drawing this water is “to improve the resiliency of the public water supply system by utilizing an existing well while minimizing impacts tot he environment.”

The application uses research and study the company did beginning in 1971, and conducted primarily in 1984 and 2013, in order to evaluate the impact of such water withdrawal on the surrounding ecosystem.

According to Lawrence, all of the private wells in the surrounding 1,500 foot radius from Aquarion’s well draw water from well below the surface, in bedrock–except for one well at a nearby property on Danbury Rd.; he said the company is in conversation with the property owner about connecting them to the Aquarion system.

He said that the water Aquarion withdraws would be used to service customers in the Norwalk basin, so that any water they remove will stay in the immediate region.

According to Lawrence, the company is committed to its mitigation plan that would address any negative impact to the river and surrounding wetlands, and any plant and animal life. He said Aquarion has three goals:  maintain vernal pools to protect breeding cycles of species; maintain floodplain and wetland groundwater to support the existing plant community; and maintain Norwalk River flow to provide habitat for trout. 

“We want to make this work,” he said.

According to Doug Hoskins, DEEP’s staff person responsible for reviewing the Aquarion application. A recommendation would be made after the application review and hearing community comments. He noted that the turnout to the meeting made an impression.

“Everyone coming out demonstrates the value of this resource, the Norwalk River must be an important resource, it is also important to our agency.”

Public Comment

Residents and town officials alike echoed the message that the Norwalk River is one of the most important assets for Wilton and for the state, and that the concern about the project is great.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle noted that Wilton is an area with a preponderance of private wells, and that, “people have a right to ask questions. With such a preponderance of wells in Wilton, it’s a point people want a great deal of explanation and reassurance. It’s an extremely important point.”

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice noted that the town has made a commitment of resources to this topic–both through time of internal staff and legal counsel, and money to hire external consultants. She said it’s one of the major priorities in the community right now.

Mike Conklin, Wilton’s director of environmental affairs said that he’s a wetlands scientist, and has several serious concerns reviewing the application. He believes that the application does adversely affect the surrounding habitats and is uncomfortable with how long ago the initial data was collected. Conklin is also concerned that such historic data doesn’t account for the current impacts from rapid climate change and what impact removing so much water will have on changing the temperature of the water–something he feels isn’t addressed in Aquarion’s application or mitigation plan.

Brian Blum, the consultant hired by Wilton, is a hydrogeologist who tried to explain his concerns in layman’s terms, regarding the concepts of “water balance” or “water budget.” He feels that what Aquarion wants to remove from the watershed is more than what enters the watershed.

“Aquarion has determined 27 inches infiltrates the ground. I believe that is an overly favorable estimate. I do not believe that 27 inches a year gets into the ground, I think it’s less. That is a significant issue. I think the water balance concern is above all the other concerns–will there be enough water for domestic users, to support vernal pools, to support the trout in the river. It all boils down to the overall water balance. How much falls on the ground and how much is brought up from this well.”

While he says that Aquarion “did a very good job” with the mitigation plan, there are gaps in how the company would be able to monitor and address potential issues.

Joe Schnierlein, chair of the Norwalk Mayor’s Water Quality Committee, said his initial reaction when he heard about the application was, “You gotta be kidding me.” He also said that for year’s he’s been saying, “Someday you’ll pay more for water than you do for gasoline,”–and “that day is here.”

Wilton science teacher Kevin Meehan has been teaching Wilton students and families about the interconnectedness of the Norwalk River for years. “It took thousands of years to fill this aquifer, and we are drawing on it faster. Our needs are going up, not down. Our aquifer is getting lower. This is worth fighting for all of us. It’s good to see it has permeated our whole community.”

Clay Larsen, chair of the Riverbrook Y, was concerned that in Aquarion’s initial study in 1984, there was no monitoring of the nearby Wilton YMCA pond.

Deborah Goldstein, a Norwalk commissioner, warned about the unknown impact the application could have on wildlife in the river as well as in Norwalk harbor, where the local shellfish industry–a “huge economic driver”–could be significantly impacted. She pointed out that there is simultaneous work in the harbor going on that also will be disruptive to marine life, and the convergence of everything worries her. With Eversource putting high voltage energy line beneath the harbor, and a new walk bridge being constructed, the harbor and river sediment will be disturbed, impact water levels and temperatures. She’s concerned that she sees nothing in the mitigation plan that deals with the impact of Aquarion’s plan on Norwalk.

Greenwich resident Elizabeth Dempsey made a huge impact on the crowd, saying that her town “does not need to have Wilton’s water sent down to us.” She explained that there are significant water conservation efforts being implemented there.

She also read a statement from Greenwich RTM official and environmental lawyer Allison Walsh:

This diversion application is made pursuant to CT Gen. Statutes 22a-368. It is governed by the CT Water Diversion Policy Act, which states:

In recognition that the waters of Connecticut are a precious, finite and invaluable resource upon which there is an ever increasing demand for present, new and competing uses; and in further recognition that an adequate supply of water for domestic, agricultural, industrial and recreational use and for fish and wildlife is essential to the health, safety and welfare of the people of Connecticut, it is found and declared that diversion of the waters of the state shall be permitted only when such diversion is found to be necessary, is compatible with long-range water resource planning, proper management and use of the water resources of Connecticut and is consistent with Connecticut’s policy of protecting its citizens against harmful interstate diversions and that therefore the necessity and public interest for sections 22a-365 to 22a-378, inclusive, and the protection of the water resources of the state is declared a matter of legislative determination. (Connecticut General Statutes 22a-366 – Legislative findings)

The legislature’s intent to prevent diversions unless absolutely necessary AND compatible with long range stewardship of these resources is crystal clear. Aquarion’s requested diversion does not meet these applicable standards:  it is unnecessary and wholly inconsistent with proper management of our water resources and long range water resource planning. The DEEP must protect the Norwalk River and not permit the diversion being sought. As others have said, it is already a stressed resources that fails to meet standards even without the massive diversion of 1 million gallons of water each day. Southwest Fairfield county does not need more water; we need to use less water and use it better, recycling it. We are a resource hungry county and Eversource/Aquarion, as steward of our energy and water usage, should be promoting water conservation, use of gray water recycling systems, and less energy usage, rather than taking from natural resources that need to be preserved, not depleted.

Louise Washer, president of the Norwalk River Watershed Authority, said she was “so happy everybody cares this much.” She warned that the river is impaired, and that her group is working to improve water quality–but Aquarion’s plan to remove the clean, cold ground water needed to dilute e-coli and other stressors and toxins from the river is problematic. “Dilution is the solution to our pollution. We can’t lose this water and we are opposed.”

Pat Onnerud, a water scientist who lives in Wilton, said that “In this day and age, a report from 1986 doesn’t mean anything. To rely on that data, when the type of data we can collect and modeling we can do now is so different.” He also noted that if Greenwich doesn’t need the water, why are we doing this?

The Norwalk River Watershed Association’s Cathy Smith expressed her concern around what she said were multiple concurrent threats:  climate change and the extent that the application’s modeling was based on past data, as well as a new dam being planned on the upper Comstock Stream, there is construction along the river/Rt. 7 corridor, the construction of the walk bridge in Norwalk Harbor–and she’s worried about what impact ALL of those things happening at once will have.

Deb McFadden said she was concerned about what recourse Wilton would have as a community if we see an impact on the River ecosystem after Aquarion’s permit is issued? How would the town make sure what is promised in the mitigation plan would happen, and how would that be enforced?

Wilton resident Russ Cole says he’s been an avid fly fisherman on the Norwalk River, and he’s concerned that a proposed water treatment facility at the well site would contain serious chemicals–chlorine, fluoride and anti-corrosive   substances–that would pose a threat to the river if spilled or if containment fails.

Other residents asked for independent review of Aquarion’s infrastructure must be checked, testing be done on private wells in the vicinity, more data and newer data gathered over longer periods of time. They also questioned why Wiltn’s water was being removed and sold for a profit by someone else.

Bill Lucy, of the Save the Sound organization and a Long Island soundkeeper, said that the section of river near the well has the highest density of trout. “When you draw down the water, the first thing that will go are the subterranean cool waters that keep the fish alive during hot times. If you’re going to maintain the river at a low state constantly, I’m seeing this is going to be used intensely. The data has to be online. So anyone can see it.” He added,  water is a public trust. Who owns the rain? We own the water.

Finally resident Sarah Curtis pointed out that the 1 million gals/day that Aquarion wants to divert is equivalent to 70% of the water used by the entire residential portion of the town of Wilton, and that Wilton is being asked to give that water away for free. We’re being asked to give away for free 70% of the daily residential usage. I find it unconscionable.”