Waterford hopes to keep independent water system

Waterford - Town officials are trying to convince the state Department of Public Health not to consolidate the town's water system under that of New London.

DPH maintains that the water system does not meet the requirements to be considered an independent public water system and said it intends to reclassify it as a water company.

The department said it would strip the town of its status as an independent system based on the results of a routine sanitary survey conducted in September 2012, according to a September 2013 letter written by DPH Sanitary Engineer Mandy Smith.

"Our review determined that Waterford does not directly operate and manage the water supply system and also does not bill the consumers, and therefore does not meet the definition of a public water system," DPH spokesman Christopher Stan wrote in an email Thursday.

Town officials have said that the change in status would result in the town losing certain benefits and could complicate the town's agreement with New London's Water and Water Pollution Control Authority, which provides water and water treatment to the town and bills Waterford's customers. Waterford owns its water infrastructure and is responsible for capital improvements, while a contractor, Veolia Water, handles routine maintenance.

Waterford Chief Engineer Neftali Soto said Wednesday that he did not entirely understand DPH's reasoning.

He said that the town has been classified as an independent public water system for at least 40 years. He said he was confused as to why the state department would reclassify it after all that time.

Kimberly McGee, an attorney who used to represent the town, wrote in a letter to DPH in September 2013 that the town was concerned changing the classification of the system would affect the town's ownership of its infrastructure, eligibility for federal loans for infrastructural improvements and ability to contract with other entities in the future to purchase water.

McGee has since left the law firm Avena and Kepple LLC, which represents Waterford.

The reclassification would leave Waterford "in full control of all water assets it owns with in town limits" and would not transfer ownership of the town's water infrastructure to New London, according to an email from Stan.

Stan also said the declassification would have no impact on the town's sewage system, which it maintains on its own and not through Veolia or New London.

The town Utility Commission and DPH have been in conversation about the issue for more than a year, according to town attorney Nick Kepple.

Commissioners said during a meeting Tuesday that they are working on a draft of a letter to the department that they hope will put the conflict to bed.

In her September 2013 letter, Smith, the DPH sanitary engineer, wrote to WWPCA contractor Veolia that Waterford did not meet the definition of an independent water system as defined by DPH regulations.

The regulations state that a water system does not qualify as an independent system if it meets five conditions, including that the system does not have any treatment facilities and does not separately bill consumers for water use.

Waterford officials say they are trying to explain to the DPH that Waterford is in a unique position. Soto said Wednesday that one example of how Waterford's system is unique is that a treatment plant is located in Waterford but is operated by New London.

Commission Chairman Peter Green wrote to DPH in January saying the town was taking steps to "strengthen Waterford's commitment to its responsibilities as a consecutive public water system."

He lists among those steps the town's intention to include language on future water bills "reflecting that the billing is on behalf of the Town of Waterford's system."

New London WWPCA Chairman Barry Weiner said Thursday, "I was surprised when this all started happening. Waterford has operated its own system as far back as I can remember."

He said he did not know how a reclassification of Waterford's system would impact New London.

Kepple said he thinks the town may convince DPH to allow it to maintain its status.

"I think we're moving in that direction," he said.

t.townsend@theday.com

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