Editorial: Who will protect the aquifers?

Lake Mamanasco is Ridgefield’s largest lake.

Lake Mamanasco is Ridgefield’s largest lake.

Macklin Reid / Hearst Connecticut Media

Aquifers, the underground geological formations that house life-giving water, are vitally important to the future — the future of the town, the state, the nation.

Aquifers should be protected — surely everyone agrees on that.

Ridgefield has begun a debate about aquifer protection. Mostly aquifers are protected through the adoption and enforcement of regulations. The argument — which will play out at a public hearing next Wednesday — isn’t whether aquifers should be protected, but who should be the first line of defense?

The town has an Aquifer Protection Agency, created in 1990 under state enabling legislation.

The question now is who should bear the responsibility and do the work of protecting the town’s aquifers? The Board of Selectmen is considering whether the town’s Aquifer Protection Agency should continue to operate, as it has since 1990, as part of the Planning and Zoning Commission, or whether aquifer protection duties should be transferred to the new independent Inland Wetlands Board, created in last year’s charter change and due to start operating once its seats are filled in November’s election.

There was no shortage of debate over the charter change separating the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission. It was proposed by the Charter Revision Commission, discussed in depth by town officials and the general public, and eventually approved by voters last November.

There was, however, almost no discussion about what should be done with the Aquifer Protection Agency. Through all the lengthy statements and sometimes emotional debate over the wetlands board, aquifer protection was barely mentioned.

The existing language fuels the confusion. Section 19-37 of the town ordinances currently states that “all aquifer protection rights, duties and obligations … are herewith assigned to the members of the Planning and Zoning Commission in their capacity as the Inland Wetlands Board.”

There are two distinct camps as to what that should mean, once the P&Z Commission and wetlands board are separated after the November election.

One camp believes the Planning and Zoning Commission should retain aquifer protection duties and responsibilities. This camp includes most P&Z Commission members.

The other side argues that aquifer protection duties should be removed from the Planning and Zoning Commission’s portfolio, and travel to the new independent Inland Wetlands Board. This camp is led the Conservation Commission, which had also championed splitting wetlands responsibilities from planning and zoning.

The question will be debated at a public hearing the selectmen have scheduled for next Wednesday, Aug. 21, at 7:30 in Veterans Park School — and it should be both interesting and important.

The selectmen plan to listen to both sides at the hearing, then discuss the matter and eventually vote, making a recommendation they will ask voters to approve — probably at a town meeting in September.

People who care about the environment, and the water they drink, should attend the hearing, listen to the arguments, and add their own opinions.

The hearing and town meeting will determine what town agency is responsible for aquifer protection. That may hold particular interest for town government insiders and local politics watchers.

But it’s everybody’s concern.