Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment in a series. For the first and second parts, readers can go to Milfordmirror.com.
History often repeats itself: This goes unrecognized because few repeats offer an obvious second chance.
The Beaver Brook system once supplied Milford with water. During the 1990s, the Regional Water Authority (RWA) abandoned its reservoir in Milford, along with the Beaver River’s famous springs, and, since these sources no longer needed protection, began selling off the “surplus” watershed land.
In two earlier columns, Hot Air described this history for readers in more detail, and outlined a pending development proposal. Added here is a wider perspective.
What happened two decades ago in Milford wasn’t unique: It reflected a statewide pattern of change in water supply management at that time; the same pattern still ripples through the state today.
Three trends during the 1990s were: A move toward regional water management, bringing larger water companies; the abandonment of many small, inefficient reservoirs and subsequent sales of watershed land to private developers; and the acquisition of state water companies by foreign firms, mostly attracted to the value of real estate.
Inevitably, a backlash followed. In the biggest case of that decade, Kelda, a multinational, bought Bridgeport Hydraulic Group, then the state’s largest private water company, gaining title to 15,300 acres of land in and around Fairfield County.
A coalition of national and state environmental groups, supported by 7,000 local activists, the CEOs of 15 affected towns, and generous funding from a new Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Grant Program, fought hard at the regulatory agencies and the legislature over three years to prevent these lands from sale to developers. The upshot? In 2002 the state, partnering with the Nature Conservancy and private donors, paid $100 million to buy the lands outright for permanent protection.
This year’s events in Bethel illustrate the pattern anew. Bethel’s municipal water company planned to sell 290 acres to Aquarion, now the state’s largest private water company, which in turn would drill new wells, abandon three reservoirs, and transfer watershed lands back to the town in 2016 with no restrictions on development.
A referendum was scheduled for mid-July, when critics feared turn-out would be low, assuring approval. Amazingly, the referendum was defeated. Bethel citizens instead want Aquarion and the town to devise a joint plan for protecting the land permanently.
Like Fairfield County towns during the late ‘90s, Milford faced the sale of its watershed lands. Unlike them, the city fudged. Now the pattern is repeating. In 2013, the state doesn’t have much money to help, and Milford’s options are a little different. Milford could: a) work to protect its watershed land from development altogether, as Bethel just did; b) make very sure the current developers keep the commitments to environmental remediation they are proposing; and/or c) focus on maintaining the city’s conservation easement for the greatest possible environmental and social benefits.
The course of action is still a little uncertain, but one point is obvious: Milford now does have a second chance.