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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    Hikers welcome at West Hartford reservoirs

    A paved trail along a reservoir owned by the Metropolitan District Commission in West Hartford includes a wide lane for pedestrians and narrow lane for bicyclists. (Steve Fagin)
    Trees line a gravel path on Metropolitan District Commission property in West Hartford. (Steve Fagin)

    Strolling the other day on a well-marked path with fabulous water views, the four of us passed runners, bicyclists, parents pushing strollers and senior citizens leaning on canes, all enjoying fresh air on a sunny morning.

    “A great place!” one smiling woman commented as she trotted by.

    Maggie Jones, Andy Lynn, Phil Plouffe and I were ambling on 3,000 acres of reservoir land in West Hartford owned by the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), which offers walkers, joggers and bike riders free access to more than 30 miles of paved and gravel trails.

    This system should be the model for southeastern Connecticut.

    Over the past two decades, proponents of a 14-mile footpath that would connect Preston, Ledyard and Groton have been trying to persuade City of Groton Utilities to allow similar use of its reservoir property in Ledyard, a key link in the proposed route.

    Groton city officials, who have long resisted allowing access to land in close proximity to reservoirs, have recently indicated a willingness to consider other nearby options. They have hired a consultant to research the idea, and are expected to submit a report to the City Council later this month.

    Karen Parkinson, president of the Tri Town Trail Association, said she is encouraged by this development and remains hopeful some agreement can be reached.

    “We’re still working on it,” she told me the other day. To date, slightly more than two miles of the trail have been completed, from the Preston Community Park into the north end of Ledyard. An estimated 500 people hike there every week.

    While I understand concerns about protecting a public water supply, studies suggest that hikers and bicyclists pose little, if any, health or safety threat. Besides – and I’m not revealing security secrets or advocating trespassing – just about any determined miscreant can easily gain entrance to the Groton-owned reservoir properties now.

    Some of the public trails we hiked in West Hartford were only a few feet away from reservoir shores, yet the MDC has listed no problems with water quality. A federally mandated annual study for 2021, issued in June, reports that drinking water supplied by the MDC “once again met or exceeded all state and federal standards.”

    The report notes that each year the MDC conducts more than 140,000 tests on the water obtained from its reservoirs, treatment plants and other sampling sites throughout the distribution system. In 2021, the MDC, which covers a region about 10 times larger than Groton’s, distributed an average of 47.6 million gallons of water per day to a population of approximately 400,000.

    Andy, formerly executive director of the New York City Department of Planning, as well as a past director of planning for the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, was particularly impressed with the MDC trails.

    “Often, reservoirs are fenced off and inaccessible to the public out of an overabundance of caution about water quality. MDC has shown how thoughtful introduction of paths and benches can allow for public access to a beautiful setting without compromising the water supply,” he noted.

    Andy added that so many places we hike have been altered by human activity – farming, logging, damming, construction – but the level of human manipulation of the landscape seems of a different order on MDC trails.

    “The paved walkways, grassy embankments, the benches, the clearings, the introduction of Norway spruce, larch and other trees – all strike me in their cumulative effect as creating a very different experience than our other hikes,” he said. The MDC reservoir trails offered “a walk in a park, rather than a hike in the woods.”

    The West Hartford Reservoirs are located at 1420 Farmington Ave. The entrance to Reservoir 6 is located on Route 44, approximately 1.1 miles west of the Mountain Road intersection. Both reservoirs open daily at sunrise and close daily at sunset.

    There are myriad trail options. We wound up hiking about 3½ miles on a paved path and another 1½ miles on gravel.

    More information, including links to maps, is available at https://themdc.org

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