Anne C. Hall
The landscape of New Hartford and Barkhamsted is dominated by three major reservoirs: Nepaug, Compensating (or Lake McDonough), and Barkhamsted, all owned by the Metropolitan District Commission, which is the water company for the greater Hartford region. These three reservoirs were built between 1909 and 1940 to supply Hartford with water for drinking, sanitation, and fire-control.
Today these reservoirs and their immediate protected watersheds are a cherished parts of the landscape. However, their history is a wonderfully complex tangle fraught with tensions between urban and rural regions, between governments and individuals. It is the story of cities and villages, of factories and of farms, of engineering challenges and successes.
Nonetheless, a starting point can be found in the riddle of the Compensating Reservoir’s name: it is part of a drinking water system but does not supply drinking water; it was built as compensation for another reservoir, but the original people compensated were not in New Hartford or Barkhamsted, though it flooded the lower section of Barkhamsted Hollow, once a small village. This apparently baffling name can be explained by examining Connecticut law and the matter of water rights. Usually the term ‘water rights’ brings to mind the mythical or not-so-mythical ‘water wars’ of the west. In the western United States, water rights operate under the system of ‘prior appropriation’ in which the person holding the earliest title has the first claim on the entire water source. However, in the eastern states the water rights are ‘regulated riparian rights’; though this is a complex legal structure, the two most important points are: that the owner of the land adjacent to the river has a right to use it and that the people downstream and upstream have a right to expect, and use, the natural flow of the river. Today this balancing act is achieved with a complex process of fees and permits; but a century ago this process was only beginning.
When the Nepaug Reservoir’s construction began in 1909, it was apparent that the demand placed on it would reduce the flow of the Nepaug and Farmington rivers to less than what was needed for the industrial power plants downstream, especially those in Collinsville, Unionville, and Tariffville. These factories were mainly owned by the Collins Company, the Union Water Power Company, and the Farmington River Power Company. Today, only the Farmington River Power Company still exists; it is owned by the Stanley Works and operates the Rainbow Dam on the lower Farmington River. These factories were major industries; they could not afford to lose the water power and Hartford could not afford to buy them out.
The Hartford Water Commission, the forerunner to the MDC, agreed to create another reservoir on the East Branch of the Farmington; water would be released from it to compensate for water not released from the Nepaug, thereby maintaining a constant rate of flow in the lower Farmington. The industries could not be bought, but the small farms of Barkhamsted Hollow could be and were. And so, in 1920 construction began at Richard’s Corner in New Hartford on what would become the Compensating Reservoir. It was only after the 1936 flood that the name, ‘the Compensating Reservoir’ had any direct meaning for the inhabitants of New Hartford and Barkhamsted. At that time, the MDC granted the towns the use of the reservoir for recreation, as compensation for the loss of the Greenwoods dam on the Farmington; an inadvertent doubling of the name’s meaning. A century later, it is that compensation which remains well known; though the old factory water rights remain traceable to this day.
Anne Hall, Ph.D., works as an architectural historian and general history researcher. You may contact Anne by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and writing “History” in the subject line.
Many thanks to the Barkhamsted Historical Society for providing the photos for this article.