Southern California receives less than 10 inches of rain per year, yet 22 million people reside there and agriculture flourishes. Such a region has no earthly business supporting such a large population or a water-intensive agricultural economy, yet it does. How is this possible?
Water is transferred there from up to 1,000 miles away through a complex system of aqueducts and reservoirs. Bringing water to the desert in California has a history of political intrigue, corruption, poor economic planning, staggering debt and the serving of special interest groups. When William Mulholland took to the first steps to seize control of water rights in the Owens Valley in eastern California for use hundreds of miles away in the Los Angeles Basin, so began what some refer to as the California Water Wars. Farmers in the Owens Valley charged that Mulholland was stealing their water.
Why is this relevant to Connecticut, a state that receives on average more than 50 inches of rain per year, ninth most in the U.S.? We have no water shortages here.
Or do we? Even now the state weighs the option of transferring more than 2 million gallons of water per day to Storrs to support the growth of the University of Connecticut. UConn President Susan Herbst and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have laid out ambitious plans in "Next Generation Connecticut" for increased student enrollment, more faculty and new buildings. The university is poised for unprecedented growth.
This growth, however, will demand more sources of water, water that is simply not available in the immediate vicinity of Storrs. Without additional water, UConn risks damaging the surrounding environment through heavy withdrawals. Many believe UConn will be one of the state's major economic growth engines of the 21st century, but without adequate water it will, like an engine without lubrication, grind to a halt.
To solve this problem, the prevailing suggestion is to transfer water from places of abundance. One such location is the Farmington River watershed. Many residents of the Farmington Valley believe such a transfer would negatively impact this scenic and historic region, and oppose the idea. Echoes of the Owens Valley can be heard in the public hearings. Although it is unfair to compare UConn to Mulholland, it is easy to see why the residents of the Farmington River Valley have the impression that UConn is attempting to steal their water.
Politicians in Hartford have been paying attention. A bill proposed by State Rep. John Hampton, D-Simsbury, would place a moratorium on all water diversion projects until a statewide water plan is developed and implemented. Such a plan would provide a detailed inventory of the state's water resources and provide options for sustainable growth. It could provide alternatives to inter-basin water transfers such as the Farmington Valley-to-Storrs concept for sustaining growth in regions that have less water.
A statewide water plan could also promote the beneficial use of unconventional water resources, such as wastewater. UConn has already started down this path by building a wastewater reuse system. With one additional low cost filtration step (like one already located at the power plant for water used in steam and power generation), the university could feasibly treat up to 1 million gallons of wastewater per day to drinking water quality. This raises the question: If this water can be made drinkable, why not simply expand this facility to capture all of our wastewater, treat it and use it directly for any purpose?
UConn is known for supporting major environmental initiatives that have it ranked the No. 5 green campus in the U.S. by the Sierra Club. The university has an opportunity to expand on that reputation by promoting its growth and vitality without overusing water resources or needing costly and energy-intensive water transfers.
Editor's note: This story has been revised from an earlier version.
Jeffrey McCutcheon is an assistant professor in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the University of Connecticut, and conducts research in desalination and water treatment. Andrew Silva is a student in his junior year in the same department, and president of the UConn chapter of Engineers Without Borders.Copyright © 2015, CT Now