New Water Tank Draws Controversy

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Nick Lolis

The current water tank, constructed in 1956, needs to be replaced and the plans are for a bigger 39 ft. tank.

Natalie Bandura, Staff Writer

This fall, the Planning and Zoning Department approved Aquarion’s—Westport’s main water provider—proposal to construct two new water storage tanks on North Avenue across from Staples High School.
The town’s water comes from the Fairfield water treatment plant, travels through interconnected distribution systems, and is stored in the water tanks in Westport. The current water tank, constructed in 1956, is in critical condition. It has become a necessity to replace the worn down tank since it serves as the sole water provider for the entire town.

However, residents who live close to the planned water tank construction site along with opposition members who are uneasy about the construction, expressed a number of concerns about neighborhood aesthetics: five years of construction, increased traffic in the location of multiple schools, and the individual worries of neighborhood residents about the water tank’s short-term and long-term impacts on their houses and properties.

Members of the opposition challenged the need for the construction of two tanks, each three times as large as the current tank. “Why are we tripling the water storage when the population is predicted to be stable and even decline?” asks Mrs. Kuku Fleming, a Westport resident and member of the water tank opposition.

While the current tank was once adequate for the town’s water needs, times have changed drastically, and building two, larger tanks is essential not only to provide sufficient water supplies for Westport residents, but also for the town’s safety in the case of a fire.

“The present tank was built in 1956- a time when Westport had a smaller population and those people lived in smaller houses. Fast forward to 2018 – our town has more people, who use more water, and much larger homes, which require more water to extinguish a fire in. Add to this the fact that the largest use of water in Westport during the summer months comes from people watering their lawns. I don’t think anyone in town had a lawn irrigation system in 1956,” said Westport Fire Marshall Nathaniel Gibbons.

In 2011, the Saugatuck Church caught on fire, taking Westport firefighters several hundred thousand gallons of water before it was saved.

“We drew that 1956 tank’s water level down to the bottom. While we didn’t run out, it was close. And it was a good thing it happened in November, because if people had been watering their lawns at the same time, we would have run out of water and lost the church,” said Fire Marshall Gibbons.

An Aquarion study found that fire fighting water supplies would have a 300% increase in the Saugatuck shores area, and would also go up substantially in every region of Westport.

Furthermore, maintaining a single tank would result in a massive disruption to Westport if it ever malfunctions because the city wouldn’t have water access for the duration of its repair. Rather than waiting until the tank no longer functions, building two tanks now will rid Westport of the possibility service interruption and provide assurance and stability in water access.

“There’s no margin for error,” says Fire Marshall Gibbons, “Having a second tank would give the town a ‘backup’ in case the first tank needs to be repaired or taken out of service.”

While the opposition confirms the need for a water tank replacement, many questions arise regarding the location of these tanks and the magnitude of the construction.

“The question is, why here, at this densely populated, beautiful neighborhood with five schools? People move to this town because of Staples, the crown jewel. Will you build this ugly thing across from the crown jewel?” inquired Mrs. Kuku Fleming.

Aquarion Director of Public Relations Peter Fazekas answers these questions. “Aquarion’s property on North Avenue has been a water infrastructure site for more than 60 years. As a gravity-fed system, the water tanks have to be placed at certain elevations. To move the tanks anywhere else would cause substantially more disruption because the distribution system would have to be re-engineered. We reviewed all our options and our North Avenue infrastructure site still makes the most sense for the town of Westport,” he said.

Because Aquarion already owns the North Avenue property, it’s the most efficient and least costly alternative. If the construction site was to be moved, water bills would rise for all Westport residents.
After the proposal was approved, the opposition appealed to the PURA state agency, or the State of Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority that sets the rules and regulations Aquarion must abide by, and are currently awaiting their decision, which is expected to be revealed in a couple months.
“Since June, the residents have been asking for Aquarion to give a list of alternative locations with the cost and benefit of each. We haven’t been given any for seven months. They didn’t consider more advanced technologies or disruptions to neighborhoods. During the pumping construction project, people’s houses were vibrating, which isn’t right for their well-being. And when we saw the water tank debate published in the Norwalk Hour instead of locally, it was discouraging. We’re asking for more transparency from Aquarion and P and Z,” said Mrs. Fleming.

Another concern is the amount of traffic that will result from the lengthy construction process.
“There will be worse traffic on North Avenue, and that will have a trickle-down effect to many critical junctures in town,” Mrs. Fleming said.

Director of Public Works, Peter Ratkiewich, agrees that increased traffic is an issue.
“The concern is that a daily influx of workmen and equipment to the site will aggravate the traffic conditions that exist during morning and afternoon rush hour. A Working group of concerned citizens and town officials are currently working with Aquarion to determine that impact, if any, and if necessary to formulate strategies to mitigate any adverse effects,” he said.

While they refuse to alter the planned construction location, Aquarion has arranged a detailed landscaping plan meant to mask the water tanks and preserve the esthetics of the neighborhood.
“This is by far the most detailed planting design we have ever undertaken for a water tank project in any town. Aquarion will meet with the Town of Westport Police Department and the schools to review and discuss traffic control requirements during construction. All construction work will take place on Aquarion property and not in the roadway. As with any construction project, it can be inconvenient for residents, but we will work diligently to communicate project information to residents. Ultimately, these water tanks will have an expected infrastructure life of over 50 years; to build anything less than this would be a disservice to town residents,” said Public Relations Director Fazekas.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that no major construction project comes without difficulties for many, especially neighbors. These problems, nevertheless, won’t last infinitely, and soon we will all reap the benefits of accountable and sufficient water storage.

Fire Marshall Gibbons explains, “Our town is pretty fully developed so wherever these tanks end up, they will be in somebody’s backyard. I have a lot of empathy for what the neighbors are going through, but someone is going to have to live next to the tanks. As citizens in a community, we all have an obligation to make sacrifices for the common good. Some people live next to schools, water treatment plants, I-95, cell towers, high tension lines, gas lines, etc. – all challenging ‘neighbors’ but all vital to provide the modern life we all live. I believe that sacrifices that benefit the ‘all’ should be shared.”