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Water project dampens town-tribe tensions

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. - Leadership and financing from the Mohegan tribe is producing a striking display of cooperation among its often fractious neighbors on one of the most divisive issues in Indian country - water.

Fights over water affect tribes from one corner of the United States to another, from pollution concerns along Maine rivers to restoration of the Salton Sea in southern California's Torres-Martinez Desert. But a plan to upgrade water distribution in southeastern Connecticut is giving the Mohegan Tribe a chance to use its casino wealth to produce undeniable benefits for its neighbors. The Mohegan-led project is not only boosting tribal goodwill, it is also soothing historical quarrels among the nearby non-Indian towns.

"I think it's a situation where a lot of the time you can structure a project so there's a benefit in it for most, if not all of the stakeholders," said Robert Congdon, first selectman of Preston and a frequent adversary of the neighboring Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes. "This is a case where Chris Clark, who is the lead guy for the Mohegan Utility, has done a very good job of making sure that for all of the stakeholders in the project, the net is positive."

"You're right," Congdon added to Indian Country Today. "It's refreshing."

This undertaking, formally called the Thames Basin Regional Water Interconnection Project, had its origin in the Mohegan's Project Sunburst, the ambitious expansion of its Mohegan Sun Casino Resort that erected a dramatic 36-story hotel overlooking the Thames River. The Mohegans needed to ensure future water supplies for the increased demand.

(It might seem strange that water could be short for a tribe based on a major river in a state with a humid climate. But the Thames, pronounced locally with a soft "th" and a long "a" to rhyme with "games", unlike the English river that flows through London, is a brackish estuary mingling with seawater from Long Island Sound all the way to the historic Mohegan trading post of Fort Shantok. Local fresh-water aquifers are sparse.)

The tribe could have considered a desalinization plant or development of new sources, said Chris C. Clark, operations manager of the Mohegan Tribal Utility Authority. But the state Department of Environmental Protection preferred the use of existing sources. A ready-made alternative was available.

The town of Groton, some ten miles south along the river's mouth, had surplus water to sell, a lot of it. The town had built up a capacity of 11 million gallons a day, mainly to supply the manufacturing plant of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. But after merger and reorganization, Pfizer shifted its local facility to research, leaving Groton with a surplus five million gallons a day.

To Clark, the natural solution was to beef up the regional system of water mains and pump the excess water from Groton north to the Mohegan territory. The system, he discovered, was almost all there, lacking only a short connecting main between the towns of Ledyard and Preston on the east side of the Thames and a main to cross the river. The cross-river connection, he said, would not only supply the Mohegans, it would provide for the future needs of their host town, Montville, and resolve a water pressure problem further south in Waterford. It would also solve future water needs for the major coastal city New London and the towns to its west along the shore.

The plan was so obvious, in fact, it had come up before over the past 25 years. But the local towns could never work out their differences. By all accounts, the Mohegan got things rolling.

"The State of Connecticut had the idea for 25 years to do something," said Mohegan Tribal Chairman Mark Brown. "We did something different. We'd do it."

The Mohegans put up $700,000 in seed money for engineering studies and legal fees to develop the purchase agreements among the towns. They pledged the $6.8 million to build the new infrastructure of mains, tanks and pumping stations. The investment, said Brown, would be repaid through water fees. He emphasized that the towns, not the tribe, would own the water system.

Perhaps just as important, the Mohegans have acted as diplomats, "facilitators" in Brown's term, to smooth out differences among the towns and win their confidence. The project has underscored the importance of local tribes to regional planning. Both the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots, said Brown, are now full members of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments.

"When we first presented the plan," said Brown, "you could see the town officials looking at it, trying to figure out how the Indians were putting something over on them." But months of meetings and personal contacts, he said, have fostered growing enthusiasm. An alternate plan emerged to make the cross-river connection further south of the Mohegan territory, near the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine base. The result, said Brown, was to bring in the U.S. Navy as a strong supporter.

An independent engineering firm is now studying the alternatives for feasibility and cost-benefit ratios, in a process that seems to have everyone's confidence.

"I think it's going very smoothly," said Preston First Selectman Congdon.