Months of rain are needed to replenish reservoirs, wells

While few applaud forecasts filled with rain or snow in their daily routines, it may be time for new thinking by Fairfield County residents.

The county’s reservoirs are going dry, with those serving the far southwestern part of the state — Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, and Wilton — in the worst shape. The greater Bridgeport public water system is in better condition but also well below average levels for this time of the year.

All of western Connecticut is under a state-declared drought watch, and most of the state has been classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor Office as being in “severe drought” or “extreme drought.”

South Norwalk Electric and Water, owned and operated by the Second Taxing District of Norwalk, supplies about 9,000 customers with water throughout sections of South Norwalk, East Norwalk, West Norwalk, Rowayton, Silvermine and Wilton. It’s reservoirs were at 24.9% of capacity in November, according to a state summary, which is far below the 66% it has been historically. The utility has declared a water emergency and has asked customers to reduce water usage.  

Aquarion Water Co., the privately owned, state-regulated entity that provides public water to this region, has asked residents to cut their water use by 20%.

“Defeat the Drought!” Aquarion asks in a new communication campaign intended to get customers to lower the amount of water they consume. The best ways to do that are to fix leaky faucets and toilets; turn off taps when washing hands, shaving and brushing teeth; shorten shower times; set correct load levels when washing clothes; keep drinking water chilled in a pitcher in the refrigerator; and install water-conserving showerheads, faucets, washers, and toilets.

“It may take months of rainfall before reservoirs and wells return to normal capacity, which is why it’s so important for everyone to find new ways to save water,” said Charles Firlotte, Aquarion president and CEO.

Precipitation deficit

For Fairfield County, the period from November 2013 to October 2016 had the fifth greatest precipitation deficit since records were kept in 1895, said Aquarion spokesman Peter Fazekas. The top four low-precipitation periods in recorded history all occurred in the 1960s.

Recent rain and snow will make only a minor dent in the problem. Much more is needed on a continual basis to fill up reservoirs.

“We are looking for rain,” said Fazekas, adding that he gets uncomfortable whenever a TV broadcaster encourages people to pursue water-dependent activities such as washing cars after it rains.

“That’s not the message we want to send,” said Fazekas. “One rainstorm doesn’t solve the drought. We take it very seriously. The towns take it very seriously.”

Large amounts of water are being diverted from Aquarion’s greater Bridgeport system to Stamford. Normally about 5 million gallons a day is diverted, but that amount is expected to go up to 11 million gallons soon because of the drought.

The company has built temporary pipelines to balance the supply among its reservoirs. This includes an emergency water line from New Canaan to Stamford to move water to the most heavily impacted areas. The 18-inch plastic water line is just north of the Merritt Parkway.

Reservoir levels traditionally fluctuate depending on the time of the year, based on usage and seasonal weather patterns. They are lowest in the summer because of heavy water consumption for outdoor uses, such as watering lawns and gardens.

Reservoirs begin to refill in the fall, and usually are full and spilling over their dams by mid-spring. In the spring of 2016, Stamford system reservoirs never spilled over, partly because of the lack of snow last winter.

The greater Bridgeport system has a large capacity, boosted in particular by the extremely large Saugatuck Reservoir in Weston. “These reservoirs were built for a large manufacturing base that is no longer there,” Fazekas said. “This gives us the ability to move water underground to balance [water levels in] reservoirs.”

State consultation

Aquarion works closely with state officials on water-related issues. It asked the state, through the Department of Public Health, to declare a water emergency in September for Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, and Darien.

The emergency gives Aquation more flexibility to move water around its reservoir systems — these include the separate Greenwich, Stamford and greater Bridgeport ones in southwestern Connecticut — to better serve areas with low water levels.

In the four most impacted towns, weekly conference calls are taking place among state and Aquarion representatives, municipal top elected officials and local health directors.

When the water emergency was first put in place, water use dropped drastically because of curtailed outdoor use, Fazekas said. Aquarion officials have visited 19,000 properties to discuss heavy water-use issues with property owners, including possible leaks.

“Sometimes people just don’t know how to turn off their irrigation system,” he said, noting that systems today are more high-tech than in the past and often are overseen by outside contractors.

Suburban residents tend to use more water per household than urban dwellers because of their larger yards, but overall demand is high in cities due to population density and the concentration of businesses.

“There are some high residential users that are irrigating,” Fazekas said.

Some businesses use a lot of water and some don’t, depending on the type of business and efficiency, he said. High water users can include hospitals, other health care facilities, municipalities (schools, other government buildings, outdoor maintenance, etc.), bakeries, dry cleaners, apartment and condominium complexes, hotels, private clubs, office complexes, manufacturing plants, and highway rest areas.

In the average home, the biggest indoor uses of water are for toilets at 30% and showers at 17%.

If it gets worse

If the drought continues to worsen, Aquarion could turn to new resources, although these are not as efficient. This would mostly be backup wells, with pumping needed to tap into large underground aquifers.

Other new measures might be to expand mandatory water-use restrictions to more towns, and to build more temporary water mains to move water to where it’s needed the most.

The idea of building new reservoir systems to serve southwestern Connecticut is not considered realistic due to the lack of available land and the high cost of filtration plants.

Many experts point to global climate change as a likely factor in lower rain and snow totals in Connecticut.

Fazekas said while some people believe in climate change and some do not, and he’s not a scientist, the fact is the amount of rain falling in the area is declining. “We do see a change in rainfall, and in patterns of rainfall,” he said. “We’re seeing fewer rainstorms, with a dramatic change in the last three years.”

Aquarion facts

Among the 51 Connecticut towns served by Aquarion are all 23 towns in Fairfield County as well as some towns in New Haven and Litchfield counties.

Connecticut has an assortment of nonprofit and private-public water entities, varying in size, which are regulated by the state. Twenty towns in the greater New Haven region are served by the quasi-public South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority.

Aquarion uses 16 reservoirs to serve customers in Fairfield and New Haven counties. The large Saugatuck Reservoir in Weston, created in 1942, is 1.34 square miles and can hold 12.38 billion gallons of water.

As of mid-December, the Greenwich reservoir system was at 33.5% of capacity, the Stamford system at 37.6%, and the greater Bridgeport system at 64.7%.