Open Groton Reservoir to hiking - and still keep it safe and clean

Hikers walk on a path on the east side of Morgan Pond Reservoir in Ledyard on April 20.

After strolling past a copse of evergreens we climbed a gentle rise and then followed the trail to the edge of a sparkling pond. Nearby a waterfall tumbled over mossy rocks, while an osprey's shrill cry pierced the air.

This was Morgan Pond Reservoir in Ledyard, a pristine expanse of clear water surrounded by dense woodlands more reminiscent of northern Vermont than southeastern Connecticut.

I was on a 3-mile group hike last week sponsored by the Ledyard Library Friends and led by Karl Acimovic, an engineer with the City of Groton Utilities, which owns the property. Such organized outings are for the time being the only way the public can legally walk on these reservoir trails, since the department tightly controls access to a water source that serves some 6,800 customers.

"The beauty of the area is absolutely breathtaking," Paul Yatcko, director of utilities, told me the other day, but added, "Job number one is the safety and security of the water system."

At issue is a longstanding debate over whether the city ever will allow hikers unsupervised access to the property, especially considering the reservoir section is a critical link in a proposed 14-mile Tri-Town Trail that would extend from Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton to the Preston Community Park. We were on the section north of Sandy Hollow Road near Rosemond Pond, a small portion of the department's 300-acre reservoir holdings in both Groton and Ledyard that contain about a billion gallons of water.

David Holdridge, a former Ledyard Town Councilor who heads a committee that for years has been promoting the trail (www.tritowntrail.com), told me his group has learned it soon will receive a $160,000 grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, in part to help secure easements and rights of way from property owners.

Though Holdridge has made his pitch numerous times to Groton officials and has been repeatedly rebuffed, he remains cautiously confident city officials eventually will relent.

I hope so.

Though I fully agree with Yatcko's point that the utilities department's first priority is to safeguard its water supply, I believe allowing responsible hikers to pass through the reservoir property will minimize rather than contribute to such problems as littering. Open-space advocates have reported such findings in numerous surveys across the country.

Acimovic, who led last week's hike, said utility workers routinely find litter and other debris on the trail – as if to prove his point, I spotted a floating beer can – but in my view this supports the case for allowing more people on the trail rather than the present system of futilely trying to bar everybody.

Obviously, anybody determined to stray onto the property can easily bypass gates, and short of installing a Berlin Wall with armed guards and patrol dogs people will continue to trespass.

Most of the hikers I know routinely pick up coffee cups, cigarette butts and other trash they encounter. For decades I've been hiking the trails at Bluff Point, among the most popular paths in the region, and almost never see so much as a candy wrapper on the ground for more than 10 seconds.

Yatcko said littering is only one concern. The department also must be wary of pollution – either accidental or deliberate.

Again, these are reasonable fears, yet a no-trespassing sign and flimsy gate would not deter anyone intent on deliberately contaminating a public water supply.

He also mentioned problems of liability, but new state laws indemnify public landowners who allow public access to their property.

There are a host of other issues – should the trail be open to equestrians, dog-walkers and bicyclists? Who should pay for trail maintenance? For rescues if hikers are lost or injured?

Holdridge and others, including mayors and state representatives who support the Tri-Town Trail, have been trying to counter these arguments and answer these questions for years, and I hope having the $160,000 in hand will help advance their cause.

Acimovic told me that at one point the city considered opening the trails using a permit system, but for one reason or other that idea was dropped.

I'm not sure why this plan never advanced, but think it is an excellent idea: Limit access only to those who have registered in advance. Why not try the proposal for a short period, say a month, and see how it works out?

In the unlikely event the city found more litter or evidence the water supply was in any way threatened, then go back to locking the gates.

I'm certain members of the committee would volunteer to patrol the area, and the magnificent trails would be safer, cleaner and better protected than they are now.

Here's another idea: Get the Groton Open Space Association (gosaonline.org) involved. This incredible organization has one of the best track records in the state for land preservation, trail creation and simply getting the job done.

Without GOSA such treasured parcels as Bluff Point and Haley Farm State Park would be paved over or dotted with housing subdivisions.

I've known Sidney Van Zandt of Noank, one of GOSA's founders and current vice presidents, for years, and trust me, if you ever want to create a park, build a trail or raise money for a worthy project, call her first.

Anyway, I hope one day we'll all be able to travel on foot from Preston to Groton without dodging too many cars or trucks, or making a sharp detour around the reservoir property.

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