Colebrook Reservoir Water Company Lands

Colebrook Reservoir

Location: Colebrook Reservoir, CT | Status: Ongoing

Summary: Collectively, water companies are the second largest owners of open space land in the state. In protecting drinking water sources, water companies also preserve forested land that cleans our air, filters our water, provides wildlife habitat, and offers recreation opportunities. Connecticut state law restricts the use and sale of drinking water company land to ensure that it is conserved in perpetuity. However, land that is located outside of a drinking water supply watershed can be sold for development – and a water company may choose to sell that land when it no longer serves to protect a part of their water supply.

The Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) owns a total of 6,490 acres in Connecticut and 6,370 acres in Massachusetts in the Colebrook Reservoir watershed, located on the West Branch of the Farmington River. Colebrook Reservoir is one of Connecticut’s last few remaining large, untapped surface drinking water supplies. It feeds directly into the Farmington River, a National Wild and Scenic River. Our legal team stepped in after MDC announced that it was terminating a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), thereby reducing its rights to the Colebrook Reservoir from 13.5 BG to 3.4 BG of water, publicly alluded to their perception that they do not need this untapped reservoir system as part of their water supply, and publicly referenced their interest in disposing of the surrounding filtering forest and superlative wildlife habitat. We want to ensure that this open space land is not vulnerable for sale the highest bidder. The possibility of losing protections for this valuable habitat resource could lead to significant development in one of the largest contiguous blocks of forested open space in the state.

We reviewed the statutory structure related to drinking water supply abandonment and identified several provisions that could lead to the disposal of watershed land after abandonment without sufficient oversight. We engaged with the Department of Public Health (DPH) and MDC in clarifying this legal process and the actual intent, and limitations, of MDC’s actions, including through the review of its draft Water Supply Plan update. MDC has since walked back its intentions to dispose of the surrounding watershed lands and retains limited rights to drinking water supplies in the Colebrook and Goodwin Reservoirs that would prevent such disposal. However, it is still engaging in certain actions that could lead to the CT lands becoming vulnerable. For example, on June 14, 2022, MDC submitted a request for a declaratory ruling that, while focusing on the 10 BG subject to the USACE contract, would undermine DPH jurisdiction over future water supply sources. MDC argues that DPH does not have jurisdiction over any inactive water supply sources, including future and emergency sources; therefore, MDC does not need to comply with the abandonment permit application process in order to terminate its rights to these supplies.

MDC’s argument is contrary to both Connecticut state law and sound public policy. DPH agreed to answer the question of whether an abandonment permit is required for the Colebrook Reservoir, and a public hearing was held on January 5, 2023. Save the Sound was granted Limited Intervenor status and participated in these proceedings.

After a morning of evidence and testimony, MDC voluntarily withdrew its request for a declaratory ruling and to file an abandonment permit regarding the 10BG at issue (that decision was ratified by the MDC Board on February 13). DPH agreed to consider this permit application and make a decision within the 90-day timeframe after its submission, but they also made clear they would evaluate the petition completely on its merits with no pre-determined outcome. Bottom line: MDC agreed to follow the clear regulatory process, through which DPH can exercise its expertise and authority to fully evaluate the proposed change in classification of this water supply and its surrounding source protection lands.

Overall, we will continue to seek to permanently conserve the land if MDC does choose to dispose of it in the future. We are also exploring legislative proposals that will shore up the statutory structure that protects water company land and future drinking water sources.

Latest step: Participated in declaratory ruling proceedings, including the January 5th public hearing.

Next step: Participate in any remaining steps of the declaratory ruling proceeding; continue to work toward permanent conservation of the 6,370 acres.

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Last Updated: February 21, 2023

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