Published March 14. 2014 4:00AM
Local water utility and state public health officials say environmental classifications proposed for streams and rivers in the watersheds of the Thames and Pawcatuck rivers and the southeastern coast would be overly restrictive and in some cases do not reflect true conditions.
"We understand DEEP wants to protect streams and fish habitat," said James Butler, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments. "But towns are concerned that if the classifications are overly restrictive, it will prevent them from doing what they have been doing."
Under new regulations this year, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will classify rivers and streams statewide according to a four-tiered system. Class 1, the most protective, requires that water levels in free-flowing, natural waterways be maintained, while Class 4 is for those that are "substantially altered" and function mainly for human uses.
Last fall, DEEP released its proposed classifications for the waterways in the eastern part of the state - the first area it undertook under the new regulations - and asked for comment before they become final. Local officials say the classifications could prevent utilities from tapping supplies for public water in times of drought.
Robert Hust, assistant director of the planning and standards division of DEEP, said the agency expects to issue its decisions in the next few months. The approximately 20 comments, most from town and water utility officials, are being evaluated, he said.
"We looked at 18 different factors for all streams and rivers" to determine the classifications, he said. DEEP also used GIS mapping technology and created online maps showing the proposed designations.
The regulations were developed to protect flows for healthy ecosystems while also balancing human needs for public water supplies. Elizabeth Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Water Works Association, said her organization has been watching the process carefully because it will establish the precedent for the rest of the state. The association, which represents private and municipal water utilities, would like DEEP to reconsider many of the proposed classifications, she said.
"The process they use is very significant," she said. "Our concerns are, do the designations make sense, and what are the practical implications? What is the impact going to be on the availability of public water supplies in the future?"
Ellen Blaschinski, public health branch chief at the state Department of Public Health, noted in a letter to DEEP that 97 percent of all the streams and rivers in eastern region were given a Class 1 or 2, which would limit the ability of utilities to tap them for public water supplies. She also noted that there were no Class 4 designations. DEEP should consider giving more streams Class 3 and 4 designations, she said, so that utilities will be able to maintain "margin of safety" requirements to keep reservoirs from falling below certain levels.
Robert Congdon and Chris Clark, co-chairmen of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Government's Regional Water Committee, said DEEP used "flawed" methodology and did not adhere to its own regulations by assigning no Class 4 designations. In a letter to Hust, they urged DEEP to delay finalizing the classifications until it clarifies "the long-term implications of the regulations and (provides) full disclosure of the intended use."
Delaying the final classifications is prudent because "this is going to have a huge impact on how waterways can be used for future water supply," Butler, executive director of the local COG, said.
Montville is among towns seeking less restrictive designations. While DEEP proposed classifying all 21 waterways in town as 1 or 2, Colleen Bezanson, town planner II and wetlands agent, said all 21 should be Class 3, which is intended for rivers and streams that are moderately altered and have multiple uses. East Lyme also raised objections to Class 1 designations proposed for the Four Mile River and Darrow Pond, saying the town may want to develop these as future public water supplies.
Waterford, Groton, the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and the Southeastern Connecticut Water Authority raised similar concerns about waterways in their regions.
Greg Leonard, general manager of the water authority, said the authority is supportive of DEEP's efforts and believes it did a good job overall. But it is concerned that no rivers or streams were designated Class 4, and with how waterways can be reclassified as conditions change.
Some of the strongest objections came from Norwich Public Utilities, which supplies water to about 42,000 customers in Norwich, Bozrah, Franklin, Lebanon, Ledyard, Lisbon, Montville, Preston and the Mohegan tribe. Mark Decker, water integrity manager for NPU, said the proposed classifications would cause the utility to reduce the amount it draws from the Deep River reservoir in Colchester by 35 percent, putting it below the acceptable margin of safety level. In addition, a tributary of the Yantic and a section of the Shetucket rivers were given a Class 1 designations that do not accurately reflect the dams and other significant alterations there.
"How much more impacted by human activity could it be?" Decker asked. "It just didn't make sense."
Decker said NPU is advocating that DEEP redo its proposed classifications. "Let's regroup," he said. "This has multifaceted impact."
The appeal process to have a stream reclassified is long and complicated, he noted, so it is important to get it right the first time.
Also weighing in on the proposed classifications were two environmental groups, The Nature Conservancy and the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut. Both groups expressed overall support for the work done thus far, along with some suggestions for revisions.
"The classification approach is logical, well documented, and meets the intent and expected purpose of the law and regulations," Mark Smith, deputy director of the conservancy's North America Freshwater Program, said in his letter to Hust.