Voters in Bethel, Connecticut let their voices be heard last Thursday when they turned down Aquarion Water Company’s proposal to buy Bethel’s water system. The unofficial tally was 1774 nays to 693 yays.
Bethel’s political leaders firmly believed that Aquarion Water Co. could provide the services necessary to restore Bethel’s water infrastructure to top condition. If the proposal were approved, Bethel’s water system would have been sold for $7.2 million.
Many voters were were wary of losing control of their water supply to an outside company and had concerns about rate increases from Aquarion, which serves 625,000 people in 47 cities and towns in Connecticut, including Fairfield, Danbury, and Westport. With current water rates already high, Bethel citizens were not interested in sacrificing more of their paychecks for even greater cost, and lately, Aquarion has been making headlines due to rate increases. However, the Aquarion sale could have assisted in paying the water department’s $2 million-plus debt and would have passed off the town’s expensive burden of upgrading Bethel’s water infrastructure, so it’s likely that rates will increase to cover system upgrades anyway.
Shani Burke Specht, a Bethel resident, wrote an op-ed to the News Times in hopes to persuade voters to turn down the proposal.
“This is one of the most important decisions Bethel will ever make,” Specht wrote early last week. “We should not make it until all information is known and voters’ concerns have been addressed.” Loss of land autonomy, unclear rate estimates, and a lack of alternative options were among Specht’s concerns.
A town hearing on the Aquarion sale held at Bethel High School on July 8 presented arguments on both sides of the proposal. Matt Knickerbocker, Bethel’s First Selectman, supported the sale, however, despite his arguments, he knew the decision was not ultimately up to him.
“This is something that the people of Bethel have to vote on,” he said.
Knickerbocker’s point of view was a finanical one: Bethel’s water system is in need of many repairs and replacements. The existing system does not have the proper storage; the available amount is only 230,000 gallons whereas 1.1 million gallons is recommended. Bethel’s sludge lagoons, which naturally oxidize and clean wastewater, are full, and the town is currently unable to treat their source water to meet new regulations that go into effect this coming fall.
Chuck Firlotte, Aquarion Water Co.’s President and Chief Executive Officer, also spoke at the hearing and informed the public that a number of organizations and environmental groups are involved with their water systems; he said the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), the Department of Health, and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) all have important roles.
Firlotte stated that Aquarion Water Co. provided support to 99% of customers during recent storms and that their productivity is increasing due to technological advances.
David Connors, the Director of Supply Operations at Aquarion, spoke to the strengths of the company.
“We are out there responding that day,” Connors said in reference to their responses to storm-related emergencies. “We take this very seriously. We have the ability to navigate difficult system problems.”
Bethel’s townspeople expressed concerns with potential road-blocking construction and interferences with personal well. Many believed that Aquarion was not providing accurate or solid facts and were frustrated with unknown variables and elements of the proposal.
Some Bethel residents stated that there could be potential pitfalls that were not being accounted for and suggested that other engineers, water companies, and water industry professionals could assist in fixing the town’s water system.
Although Aquarion’s slogan bills the company as “Stewards of the Environment,” they could not persuade Bethel residents that they were the right choice for Bethel’s environment. Town officials are currently planning upgrades to the South Street pump station as they begin to tackle the estimated $4,5 million in improvements to the Bethel water system.