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Lifestream for a Region: History of the Regional Water Authority

When New Haven was settled in 1638, people living on the outskirts of town depended upon wells or streams for water. Those living in town used a village pump, located on the Green, as their primary water source.

By 1849, with the expansion of business and the need for fire protection, it became obvious that wells weren’t adequate or reliable for water supply. A group of prominent citizens approached the Connecticut Legislature and received a charter to be able to supply the City of New Haven with pure water for public and domestic use. After a few years of trying to raise money for this new system, people turned to Eli Whitney II to assist with building a waterworks on the Mill River at the foot of East Rock.

In 1859, Whitney began construction of a dam that backed up the Mill River for 2½ miles and formed a reservoir, appropriately named Lake Whitney. Distribution of water to the residents of New Haven began on January 1, 1862. Two huge waterwheels, 30-feet in diameter, were used to push water up Prospect Street into a reservoir where the water could flow by gravity through 18 miles of pipe into the city.

For the next 40 years, the New Haven Water Company pumped water directly from its reservoirs to the city’s homes and businesses. The water required neither filtration nor chemical treatment. In April 1901, over 400 people came down with typhoid fever. The contamination that caused the disease was traced to the Bethany and Dawson Reservoirs. The company had already begun to acquire property surrounding its reservoirs to protect them from pollution, but the epidemic encouraged the company to pioneer new water treatment methods.

The first water treatment plant in New Haven was the Whitney Filtration Plant. The treatment plant was designed to be functional raSlow Sand Filter Plant - Lake Whitneyther than stylish and was the first structure built in Connecticut of reinforced concrete.

By 1912, when the New Haven Water Company made its first annual report to the Connecticut Public Utilities Commission, the company was serving more than 150,000 people in seven towns. Its operating system was comprised of more than 800 miles of mains, 1,000 fire hydrants and 11 reservoirs, with a combined storage capacity of 5.3 billion gallons.

As the city grew into a metropolitan region, the New Haven Water Company initiated an ambitious plan to provide the city with pure water for the rest of the century. This involved the construction of a 13 billion-gallon reservoir on Totoket Mountain in North Branford and the diversion of water into the system from natural watercourses in Guilford, Madison and Killingworth. The North Branford project took five years to complete. It was the largest engineering project ever undertaken in Connecticut at that time.

The company continued to expand its system. On the distribution side, the New Haven Water Company laid new pipeline and acquired smaller companies, keeping pace with New Haven’s growing suburbs. The company also continued to purchase land to protect the drinking water watersheds.

By 1970, the New Haven Water Company owned 25,000 acres of land in 17 south central Connecticut towns. Though primarily a supplier of water to the region, these vast real estate holdings had become invaluable resources as well. With the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, the company found itself subject to more stringent government regulations. To meet these costly requirements, it had to consider either selling off its real estate or raising water rates. The company opted to sell land. Because of objections from surrounding communities, a commission was formed to study the question. It was clear that the company could no longer remain in private hands. The commission recommended the formation of a publicly-owned regional water company. In 1977, the legislature created the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority to serve the area’s recreational, environmental and water needs.

The Regional Water Authority purchased the assets of the New Haven Water Company in 1980. The Authority’s enabling legislation requires the Authority to provide an adequate supply of pure water at a reasonable cost while conserving land as open space and allowing compatible recreation use of land.

At the same time the Authority was building water treatment plants at Lake Saltonstall, Lake Gaillard and for the West River system, it was pursuing opening areas to recreational activities. Lake Saltonstall was opened to fishing in 1983, and over the next decade, several more areas were opened for hiking and fishing. The Household Hazardous Waste Collection Center was developed with the assistance of the South Central Connecticut Regional Council of Governments and HazWaste Central opened to the public in April, 1990. That same year, the Whitney Water Center, a water science education center in Hamden, opened.

Following a long period of very little growth in water consumption beginning in the 1970s and Lake Whitney Water Treatment Plantextending well into the 1980s, the Lake Whitney slow sand filter plant was closed in 1991. This plant had been in continuous service since March 1906. An increase of water consumption beginning in 1993 was a sign that the lingering effects of the recession of the early 1990s were over. The RWA’s reserves, the amount of water available in excess of average daily demand, had fallen to 9 percent. Water supply professionals and regulators believed that a public water system well positioned for future growth and unforeseen contingencies should have a 20 percent margin of reserve. The company decided to build a new filtration/treatment plant for the Mill River/Lake Whitney supply to restore the RWA’s margin of reserve. This would prove to be a challenging task, complicated by state diversion regulations, neighborhood opposition to new construction at the site of the old plant, and opponents concerned about the downstream environmental impact presumed to result from the diversion of water from Lake Whitney into the public drinking water supply. The RWA worked with the community to address all the concerns, and ground was broken for the new plant in March 2002. The dedication of the plant was in September 2004.

With more and more stringent regulations, smaller water companies in the state were having trouble meeting them without raising rates an exorbitant amount. The RWA purchased the Birmingham Water Company, in 2008. The RWA’s acquisition included 1,600 acres around the Peat Swamp reservoir, several wells along the Housatonic River, 10,000 customers and their distribution system.

Today, the RWA provides approximately 45 million gallons of life-sustaining water at a reasonable cost to almost 430,000 consumers in 15 communities in our region while promoting the conservation of watershed land and aquifers. The source of this water is a system of watershed and aquifer areas that cover about 120 square miles within 24 municipalities. Much of our 27,000 acres of land is managed for watershed protection, timber resource conservation, wildlife habitat, open space, education and research. 

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