Small Connecticut water companies face extinction

New Milford

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — For nearly 50 years, a community of 15 homeowners in New Milford got by fine on three water wells, paying a reasonable price for a reliable supply, resident Mark Conrad said. But about four years ago, the state took an interest, he said, and that’s when the trouble began.

Regulations required hiring a certified operator, more water testing and upgraded electrical systems. Now the community is being forced to buy water from a large regional water company with rates likely to rise by more than $200 per family per year, Conrad said. With the possibility of state fees, he fears the price for water could double.

“We were going to be taken over by a water company, or we’re going to go broke trying to do it on our own,” he said. “It’s been very frustrating and very unsatisfactory.”

Across rural areas of Connecticut, hundreds of tiny water companies are showing their age and face extinction. An array of environmental regulations, record-keeping requirements and decaying systems are forcing residents to shed ownership of their water companies — turning in the keys, it’s called — and fold their community systems into large water companies.

John Betkoski III, vice chairman of the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, said water rates for many small companies will likely rise when they’re taken over by larger, regulated companies. Volunteers ran the small community companies for years, helping keep the prices down, he said. But now, plant and equipment upgrades will be needed, and “we obviously need to pay for those,” he said.

The water systems date back decades when small housing developments were built in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, said Michael Krespan, director of health at the New Milford Public Health Department. Many communities sprang up near Connecticut’s numerous lakes, and wells are the dominant source of water, he said.

In the past five years, nearly two dozen water companies were acquired by larger businesses, according to the state Department of Public Health. At least four other water system takeovers are being reviewed by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

The benefits of upgraded, well-run water systems are obvious.

Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of government affairs at the American Water Works Association, a Washington educational group, said outbreaks of cholera and waterborne illnesses that once were common are now rare. And deaths among infants from water fouled by diarrhea are now unheard of in the United States, he said.

“It’s a success story, but it’s complicated and can be expensive,” Curtis said.

Safe drinking water standards enacted in federal legislation in 1974 have led to numerous regulations enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I think we’re going to see more and more in the future water systems throw up their hands and say we can’t do it, we can’t afford it,” he said. “Without a corporate parent you can lean on, it’s hard. It can be extremely expensive and difficult. Just even knowing what the regulations are is complicated. It requires a degree of sophistication that’s hard to come by in a small system.”

Ted Backer, an environmental and utility lawyer, cited other benefits. A larger, consolidated water company boosts home values and “makes less headaches for homeowners,” he said. “It makes basic economic sense.”

So far, that’s not been the experience in New Milford.

“We were getting more and more regulations from the state,” Conrad said. “They increased our taxes, they increased our costs.”

Betkoski said public health officials and utility regulators review water company operations and finances, which takes time.

“It could cost additional money, and that’s why quite honestly it takes much longer,” he said. “We look at every single option so we can avoid rate shock.”

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