Save the Sound Takes Connecticut-wide Legal Action for Clean Water

Clean Water Act Enforcement Action against Middletown, Redding, Ridgefield, and Burlington

New Haven, Connecticut – Residents throughout Connecticut are facing unhealthy, polluted rivers and streams. Save the Sound has filed Clean Water Act Enforcement Actions against Middletown, Redding, Ridgefield, and Burlington for failing to meet their Clean Water Act obligations to provide swimmable, fishable waters by violating their Connecticut state municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permitting requirements. Save the Sound is also in ongoing discussions with Southington and New Milford to bring their municipalities into compliance but has not filed suits against the municipalities at this time, as they have taken measures to come into compliance. While these actions address some of the most blatant violations of the permit, Save the Sound believes there is widespread non-compliance by municipalities across the state and will continue its efforts to bring the other towns into compliance to ensure clean water statewide.

“Nine million people live on Long Island Sound’s shores and the lands that drain to it, including all of Connecticut. Unfortunately, that many people means pollution,” said Bill Lucey, Long Island Soundkeeper for Save the Sound. “Stormwater runoff from roads, roofs, and parking lots is one of Connecticut’s most serious sources of local water pollution, carrying bacteria, oils, chemicals, salt, and plastics into our streams and eventually to lakes and the Sound. But we shouldn’t just throw up our hands. There are things our communities can do to stop stormwater pollution—and indeed, things the Clean Water Act requires them to do.” 

“Under the federal Clean Water Act, which has been the law of the land for nearly 50 years, waters must be swimmable and fishable,” said Roger Reynolds, senior legal counsel at Save the Sound. “Unfortunately, far too many local rivers, streams, and lakes across Connecticut still do not meet that legal standard. We are asking the court to require Middletown, Redding, Ridgefield, and Burlington to immediately take legally required measures, such as thoroughly understanding their systems and studying and reducing impervious surface, that will reduce illegal pollution to local rivers, lakes, and Long Island Sound.”

To address the impacts of stormwater pollution, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection re-issued a General Permit in 2017 requiring all municipalities that meet certain criteria for population density to protect water quality by, among other things, tracking and eliminating illicit discharges and reducing their amounts of impervious surface area. A complete list of permit tasks required, and their due dates, can be found at https://nemo.uconn.edu/ms4/basics/timeline.htm.

In spring 2021, Save the Sound investigated Connecticut municipalities’ compliance with Clean Water Act requirements for municipal stormwater. Alarmingly, our research showed that municipalities across the state are discharging stormwater pollution that is making local waters and the Sound unsafe for swimming and aquatic life and violating federal water quality standards.

Known waterbodies impaired by stormwater pollution are shown in red and purple on this map by UConn’s Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO). An interactive version is available at https://nemo.uconn.edu/ms4/tools/ms4map.html.

After informing six municipalities that they were in violation of their MS4 permit, Save the Sound sought to communicate and work with the municipalities during a 60-day period to achieve compliance without a court action. While some responded in a timely manner, expressed their willingness to comply, and took meaningful affirmative action within the 60-day timeframe, others ignored their obligations until too late or entirely. Save the Sound is taking action against four:

  • In Middletown, E. coli and additional pollutants are polluting the Connecticut, Coginchaug, and Mattabesset Rivers; Laurel, Miner, Sawmill, Spruce, and Sumner Brooks; Crystal Lake; and Wadsworth Falls State Park Pond. This is negatively impacting both recreation opportunities and habitat for fish, other aquatic life, and surrounding wildlife.
  • In Redding, E. coli and additional unknown pollutants impact both the Little and Norwalk Rivers, negatively affecting recreation and habitat for fish, other aquatic life, and surrounding wildlife.
  • In Ridgefield, E. coli, phosphorus, and additional unknown pollutants impact the Norwalk River, Ridgefield Brook, Cooper Pond Brook, Titicus River Sub-Regional Basin, and Mamanasco Lake. This negatively impacts both recreation and habitat for fish, other aquatic, life and surrounding wildlife. 
  • In Burlington, E. coli negatively impacts recreation in Burlington Brook.

Each of these municipalities were identified because they had not complied with even the most basic requirement of submitting their required annual compliance reports for at least two years and have failed to take meaningful steps do so within the 60-day period after being contacted. By failing to file those annual reports, they have failed to demonstrate compliance with all of the General Permit requirements and made it impossible for the public and entities to get necessary information. Legal action is now required. Once reports are filed, the status of each municipality’s other substantive permit obligations can be determined, with the goal of bringing each into full compliance with the 2017 General Permit and the Clean Water Act.

Two other municipalities investigated responded to Save the Sound’s outreach when contacted early on, and are now in conversation with Save the Sound about meeting their permit requirements:

  • In New MilfordE. coli, excess nutrients, and additional unknown pollutants affect Lake Lillinonah and the Housatonic and Still Rivers, negatively impacting both recreation opportunities and habitat for fish, other aquatic life, and surrounding wildlife. New Milford was responsive and is collaborating with outside organizations to complete the MS4 permitting requirements, and continues to openly discuss their progress with Save the Sound.
  • In Southington, E. coli (fecal bacteria), phosphorus, and additional unknown pollutants impact the Quinnipiac River, Patton Brook, Tenmile River, and Misery Brook. This negatively affects both recreation for residents and habitat for fish, other aquatic life, and surrounding wildlife. Following Save the Sound’s notification of their violation, Southington filed an annual report to begin the process of full compliance.

There are programs in place to guide municipalities on projects, funding, and mapping to achieve permit requirements:

  • UConn’s Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR) and its Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO) program provides notice of upcoming requirements, trainings, and even comprehensive mapping of each municipality’s impervious areas. The program includes extensive information on public outreach and education so local residents can play a role in healing the polluted water bodies.
  • Save the Sound’s Municipal Stormwater page shares numerous funding options and the stories of towns across Connecticut and the United States succeeding at reducing their stormwater pollution.
  • ReduceRunoff.org is a resource from Save the Sound and UConn CLEAR that provides guidance on installing a rain garden, rain barrel, or permeable driveway pavers at homes, churches, or businesses. This type of green infrastructure not only prevents pollution by keeping excess water out of the stormwater system and filtering out pollutants, but it can reduce flooding, making communities more resilient in the face of storms.

Filings and research for this action were prepared by law students in Save the Sound’s environmental law clinic at University of Connecticut School of Law, under the guidance of Save the Sound attorneys who teach and direct the clinic.

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