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Growing University Highlights Connecticut's Water Woes

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Growing University Highlights Connecticut's Water Woes

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Growing University Highlights Connecticut's Water Woes

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The northeastern United States is starting to grapple with what has long been a largely Western problem: inadequate water supplies. And now, one of the area's biggest schools, the University of Connecticut, is generating controversy with a plan to expand its campus and use much more water. Neena Satija of member station WNPR reports.

NEENA SATIJA, BYLINE: Even on a cold winter's day, fly-fishermen are thigh-deep in the waters of Connecticut's Farmington River, in the northeast corner of the state near the Massachusetts border. But Dave Sinish, who's lived in the Farmington Valley since 1971, says it's been under stress in recent years. Take last summer.

DAVE SINISH: In this particular area, you could walk across the river.

SATIJA: Kayaks and canoes scraped across the riverbed. Fishing was nearly shut down. So when the University of Connecticut proposed tapping into reservoirs in this watershed, the community was upset. It's one of the first really public controversies on water resources in this area for a long time. Pat Bresnahan is the former associate director of UConn's Water Resources Institute. She says it may be a taste of things to come here.

PAT BRESNAHAN: Part of the problem is that we get so much rain, and we're perceived as being a very water-rich area, but because of our development patterns, the water isn't always where the development is.

SATIJA: That's certainly true of UConn's 3,100-acre main campus, which is miles away from the Farmington River watershed in the rural town of Mansfield. The university is gearing up to build a $170 million technology park and increase its student population by a third, so it will need more water, but water in the Northeast seems to be coming more in fits and starts. Recently, we've seen wetter winters but very dry summers. Bresnahan says that means it will be harder for UConn or anyone else to plan for future needs.

BRESNAHAN: It's like your checkbook. You need to know the patterns of income. You need to understand how much water you have and when you have it.

SATIJA: That's already been a problem at UConn, which actually pumped a nearby river dry in 2005 after one of the driest summers on record. Since then, it's spent tens of millions of dollars on water conservation efforts. But it still doesn't have enough. Tom Callahan, who's in charge of infrastructure and investment planning at the university, says it will need 2 million more gallons of water per day once the expansion is complete.

TOM CALLAHAN: You know, when you think about it, the university is 130 years old. We're at a point where after 130 years, we need to look at some additional options.

SATIJA: The university and the state say UConn's expansion will jumpstart badly needed economic development here by creating thousands of new jobs and research opportunities. But the controversy it's created has prompted calls for Connecticut and the broader region to develop a comprehensive water plan. Virginia de Lima of the U.S. Geological Survey says that's no easy task when scientists don't even really know how much water the region will have since the weather is becoming increasingly erratic.

VIRGINIA DE LIMA: Most of the models suggest that we will have both more precipitation and higher temperatures. And how those two balance out is going to be the key to what happens.

SATIJA: Add to that the fact that in the Northeast, we have a lot of urban development that already competes intensely for water resources. Delima says we need to start asking the questions that governments in the Southwest and the West have already been grappling with for years.

LIMA: Who gets water? If there's competition over water or competition over high-quality water, who gets it first? Or who has to cut back first?

SATIJA: Those are tough questions for Connecticut to answer as one of its largest and most prestigious public universities asks to quench its thirst. For NPR News, I'm Neena Satija in southwestern Connecticut.

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