[OPINION] Aquarion’s Diversionary Tactics

Dr. Stefanie Lemcke is a technology entrepreneur. She moved to Westport in 2012, and is an immediate neighbor to the Aquarion property. She, her husband Marc and several other Westporters started Smart Water Westport, to educate the community on water issues. She writes:

Aquarion is the only water provider in Westport. and many towns nearby.

Water prices are proposed by Aquarion, and set by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. As Westporters might suspect from watching their water bills, prices always go one direction: up.

Though Connecticut has plenty of water, only residents of Hawaii and Alaska pay more.

Over the past few years, Aquarion filed for a special permit to dismantle the existing water tank on North Avenue, and replace it with 2 much larger tanks that would quadruple the water storage capacity.

PURA members and protesters at the Aquarion North Avenue water tower site visit in 2018 …

At meetings and through petitions, residents requested lower height of the tanks. Neighbors formed Smart Water Westport to argue for better management of our water, and smaller tanks.

The group raised 2 main arguments:

  • The North Avenue property was not zoned for such a large facility in a residential neighborhood (according to town zoning, water tanks are only allowed in AA neighborhoods if they served the immediate neighborhood)
  • The amount of water wasn’t needed for our town. The population had not increased, so why would we need 4 times the storage capacity?

Our state senators and First Selectman Jim Marpe wrote to Aquarion, supporting our request to decrease the tanks’ size.

Danielle Dobin, now chair of the Planning & Zoning Commission, wrote a personal appeal to Aquarion’s CEO to reconsider construction in this location.

Aquarion countered that Westport indeed faced a water shortage: Water usage was skyrocketing, and the company had implemented an irrigation schedule here to save water.

The company even bought television ads to convince us that without these tanks, we would face a terrible shortage of water.

In the end, a settlement granted Aquarion the right to build the tanks at a reduced height of the roof. The total price tag: $10 million, and a 2-year construction period.

… and the current tank.

Curiously, almost immediately after winning approval to build the tanks in the middle of a residential neighborhood, Aquarion applied to divert water from the Westport system to lower Fairfield.

The amount is unbelievably high. The permit asks to divert more than 14 million gallons per day.

Aquarion is telling us that we have more than enough water in our region, and we can easily divert some to Darien, New Canaan and Greenwich. Aquarion even sells water to Westchester and New York City.

All the arguments for building the tanks are suddenly flipped. There will be no shortage. There is plenty of water here: The Westport wells are actually not for Westport, but for Lower Fairfield.

On average, more than 60 million gallons per day is available (a number the company did not disclose during the water tank hearings).

The town of Fairfield and environmental agencies have filed for intervenor status, asking Aquarion to be transparent with their analysis and reasons regarding the need for this substantial increase in the volume of water diversion, as well as its impact on water quality, the environment, water usage and conservation.

Watch your water bills. Refurbishing the old tank would have cost just $1.5 million. Now, customers are paying for more than $10 million.

To make matters worse, we are paying for water that is diverted elsewhere, and sold to New York City.

Please email our town and state representatives, and our local P&Z chair. Ask them to get involved in the diversion petition, and to question Aquarion’s practice.

Also, register for May 4 (3 p.m., Zoom): the last discussion around Aquarion’s water diversion permit. Every citizen should have a say in how one of our most prized assets is being used — and the price we pay for it.

21 responses to “[OPINION] Aquarion’s Diversionary Tactics

  1. Barbara Mathias

    Aquarion obviously had/has a profit motive… why would Westporters pay the bill? Should it not be shared by any who benefit. The main concerning fact is they lied about the need here. There certainly seems to be something town authorities could do to intervene, like capping increases in our rates and share that cost with the municipalities that utilize the excess. We have more than one monopoly, like Optimum, who charge whatever the hell they want. Monopolies are a curse.

  2. It’s worse than a curse, when it’s a non-competitive utility; and we can include Eversource in this group.

  3. David Cleveland

    Having dealt with state regulators in the past it doesn’t surprise me that we pay the highest utility rates. Not the sharpest knifes in the drawer.. It is now owned by eversourse. The fox is in the henhouse.

  4. This is what happens when we were sold a ” bill of goods” another synonym for a pile of poop that our lives and pocket books would be so much better off when we allowed the deregulation of Public Utilities! Originally this was supposed to lower the costs to consumers of utility services and make these utilities more efficient and responsive to the needs of the rate payers, HA! The only thing it has really accomplished is to give these PRIVATE UTILITIES a license to do whatever they damn well please for the benefit of their ownership and management.
    The Public Utility Comissions that exist today especially in Connecticut are SMOKESCREENS staffed by more Goverment Gravy Train appointees who spend far more time rubber stamping private utility companies ” wishlists” than really looking out for the public interest!
    As history now shows, deregulation of the public utilities has amounted to Private Monopolies!
    Please someone show me where the benefits are?

    “Caveat emptor”

  5. Chuck Greenlee

    Maybe we should have a toll fee for water not used In WESTPORT/WESTON. Am also wondering if the looong delays on the CANAL RD bridge are some type of retribution from Aquarion???

  6. Chip Stephens SHS 73

    Ask yourselves…… Where does the water that fills the tanks come from? Not Westport. Be careful what you propose .

  7. Thank you for bringing this to everyone’s attention, Dan. Man, human beings can be stupid. What did everyone think would happen when we privatized and deregulated essential services?

  8. I’m no expect in utility regulation, but I don’t understand why a water company would scheme to OVER-invest in infrastructure.

    Also, isn’t the water system connected between Westport and Fairfield, making the distinction immaterial whether the water is needed here or there?

    (I do, however, praise Ms. Lemcke’s clever signage and publicity skills for this NIMBY project.)

  9. Bill Strittmatter

    Wow. This screed is so wrong headed one doesn’t know where to start.

    First, the tanks have nothing to do with where the water comes from, but do maintain water pressure and supply when usage is heavy. The primary beneficiary is Westport though, since the Aquarion system is interconnected between towns, no doubt there is system benefits to other towns just as there is benefit to Westport from being connected to the broader system.

    Second, Westport’s water, for the most part, comes from other towns (Fairfield, Redding, Weston, Easton), not the Coleytown or Canal Street well fields which appear to only supplement supply seasonally. Most of the water being diverted comes from other towns though, since the water all goes into the same system, no doubt some of the molecules that come from Westport’s well fields will end up going elsewhere.

    Third, the whole concept of Westport being put upon by indirectly supporting other towns is astounding. As Chip Steven’s notes, be careful what you propose.

    But let’s go there. Let’s separate Westport from the rest of the Aquarion system so Westport’s precious water doesn’t leave town borders. Of course, that goes both ways – Fairfield, Redding, Weston, Easton, etc. will keep their water for themselves as well, thank you very much. Unfortunately, Westport appears to be a net taker rather than provider of water to the system so let’s see how that works out for Westport.

    While we are at it, let’s cut Westport out of the electricity grid and stop everyone else’s leeching off the electricity generated in Westport and vice versa. Wait, what, you mean there are no power plants located in Westport and almost all power is imported? That’s fine. Everyone should get solar panels on their roofs and become self sufficient anyway. Maybe put a couple of wind turbines off Compo Beach and some diesel generators in Winslow Park for backup.

    Ditto for hospitals – non Westporter’s stay out of Westport hospitals, Westport will stay out of non-Wesport Hospitals. Is the author starting to see the problem? I could go on. Food, gasoline, construction materials

    Aquarion might be a terrible utility but not for the reasons stated here.

  10. I am also mystified by the various comments decrying the “privatization” and “deregulation” of the local water utility. Do you folks know something I don’t?

    My understanding is that the water system was from the very beginning built and run by Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, now known as Aquarion, and always regulated by the state public utilities commission as are all public utilities that are a natural monopoly.

    (No place in the world has two sets of water mains in place, so far as I know.)

    I think what you may be calling for is the water system to be DE-privatized; i.e. municipally-owned But be careful what you wish for. The Flint, MI water system was run by the city.

  11. The real problem is Pura – Public Utilities Regulatory Authority and Hartford.

    .

  12. I like to apologize publicly to Cathy Walsh, the P&Z Chair, in 2017 when Aquarion applied for the water tank special permit in Westport.

    When I watch the P&Z hearings at the time on the Town’s website, it gets scary. Almost the whole story Aquarion presented to Ms. Walsh and her colleagues turned out to be half-true at best – some statements were simply lies.

    Out of the long list, just a few facts:
    – The tanks are not really for Westport.
    – There is plenty of water in the system.
    – Because of stale water, there will be more risk of bacteria than ever.
    – The insurance rate will not go down, but water bills will go up.
    – There is no population growth in Westport.
    – The Town remains non-compliant by wide margins on all parameters.
    – Millions of gallons per day are sold to other systems.

    Ms. Walsh has asked the right questions, a long list. She couldn’t make sense of Aquarion’s reply. It took us almost three years to understand the water and fire protection situation in our Town. She and her colleagues had 45 days.

    The state was nowhere near for help, on the contrary. The state openly admitted that they don’t have the resources or competencies to support Westport. No wonder as oversight is split among at least four state agencies.

    The regulator allowed the tanks because Aquarion showed an “intend to improve a situation,” I can’t think of a lower standard. Ms. Walsh is right; PURA is the problem. The P&Z could have hardly done anything differently during the 2017 discussions. I wish we had heard from them during the PURA hearings in 2018 and 2019 though.

    A simple first step would be a stakeholder oversight board, above all agencies. I would nominate Ms. Wals – she would not get fooled again.

    Bottom line, Westport and the citizens of this state deserve better. This will not be the last time we hear about water in our state and Town.

  13. Catherine Walsh

    Apology accepted. Thank you

  14. The most distressing thing about this piece is that, with the brag of 60million gallons available each day, folks will be less likely to give a damn about conserving water…

  15. I was surprised to learn, via Ms. Lemcke, that only Hawaii and Alaska have higher water rates than we do in CT.

    Upon checking, the claim is not true. The cos in Westport is $4.23 per hundred cubic feet (HCF) for the first 420 units quarterly, and then $2.08 for subsequent units. In San Francisco the initial cost is $9.60/HCF — and in California the rate goes UP with higher consumption, unlike here. Even in NYC, the cost averages about the same as here, about $4/HCF.

    The source Ms. Lemcke quoted was a survey that compared the average of ALL UTILITY BILLS, in which CT is indeed listed highest, but the main reason is our high electric and home heating rates, not the cost of water.

    • It’s important for future generations (and, perhaps our own), Peter, that water rates be high, not low. Low water charges lead inexorably, to high water waste and, eventually water will become the very most expensive, least available natural resource .

  16. Bill Strittmatter

    Yes, the misleading information dropped by Dr. Lemcke may indeed lead to bad behaviors on the parts of her readers. The 60 million gallons per day figure (it’s actually a bit higher) cited by Dr. Lemcke only indirectly relates to Westport. If you read the report, it is the total water supply available to the Greater Bridgeport region (yeah, I know, icky that Westport is associated with Bridgeport, right? – one more reason for Westport to go it one its own I suppose/sarc). It shouldn’t come as a surprise but a few other towns beside Westport have their straws in that drink.

    We are all quite lucky that Bridgeport was an armaments manufacturing center in WWI and WWII and built a water system designed to support a large industrial base. The bad news (employment wise anyway) is that industrial base disappeared over time. The good news is the Greater Bridgeport area has more water resources than it needs in the aggregate. Nice they shared some of that with Westport along the way. And now lower Fairfield County (not lower Fairfield as the water flow tends to be from/through Fairfield to Westport).

    In any event, excess availability in the aggregate doesn’t mean people shouldn’t conserve water if for no other reason than it isn’t always where it need to be.

  17. Everywhere you look, someone in town is installing a pool….

  18. Susan Garment

    I believe that Aquarium is foreign owned (UK). Perhaps we would have more control over our own water if the utility in charge of providing this essential service was a CT company answerable to it’s neighbors who use the water.

  19. David A Cleveland

    Information from someone who works at acquarion now owned by eversourse

Leave a Reply to Bill Strittmatter Cancel reply