Environment and Engineering Sections

Connecticut River Conservancy Keeps Watershed Efforts Flowing

Keeping Current

A paddlers group celebrates today’s Connecticut River.

A paddlers group celebrates today’s Connecticut River.
Photo by Craig Norton Photography

When the Connecticut River Watershed Council was formed in 1952, its leaders brought attention to the river’s obvious problems, most notably the raw sewage floating in it. Sixty-five years later, the organization, which recently rebranded as the Connecticut River Conservancy, has assembled a long record of not only cleanup, but dam removals and other efforts to protect wildlife, advocacy for environmental issues at the state and national levels, and public engagement that has connected thousands of volunteers with efforts to create a healthier watershed. And they’re only getting started.

In 1959, seven years after helping to found the Connecticut River Watershed Council, Dr. Joseph Davidson embarked on a week-long source-to-sea trip — from the river’s source, Fourth Connecticut Lake in New Hampshire, near the Quebec border, to Long Island Sound — to highlight the problem of river pollution.

Dr. Joseph Davidson brought attention to the Connecticut River filth levels in 1959.

Dr. Joseph Davidson brought attention to the Connecticut River filth levels in 1959.

During its first decade, in fact, the CRWC spent much of its energy raising public consciousness about what was then described as “America’s best-landscaped sewer.”

Much has changed since then, both along the river itself and in the CRWC, which rebranded in April as the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC). To celebrate those changes, the organization’s director, Andrew Fisk, is repeating Davidson’s 400-mile trek with what he’s calling the Jump In Journey, this time focusing on the many ways people enjoy the river, rather than reasons to actively avoid it.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of success in 65 years, and we want to celebrate that, but also highlight the work that still needs to be done,” he told BusinessWest two days before beginning the trip, which began at the river’s source on July 16 and will end at the sound in Connecticut on July 30. “We’ll be traveling by many different modes to celebrate the ways people love the river.”

Fisk and a few traveling companions will navigate the river via canoes, kayaks, motorboats, dragon boats, sculls, handmade boats, swimming, scuba diving, even waterskiing, taking part in community events along the way. In addition, he’s organizing ‘splash mobs’ at various locations to draw in locals.

Andrew Fisk

Andrew Fisk with water samples from various spots along the Connecticut River watershed being tested in CRC’s lab.

The fact that Fisk can do all this without wading through raw sewage, as Davidson did, is reason for celebration, but the board of the CRC considers this rebranding year just the beginning, with plenty of work ahead.

“We’re the second-oldest watershed organization in the country — not environmental organization, but watershed organization,” Fisk explained. “We were started in 1952 by a group of local citizens, business leaders, and elected officials who thought they might be able to address quality of life and quality of the environment on a regional scale, by doing it from a watershed perspective. That was unique at the time.”

Those early years were largely informational, he explained, with members compiling reports, figuring out what they knew about the watershed — which covers 11,000 square miles in four states — and determining what issues they should be working on.

In the 1960s, the group became more active in specific projects, such as advocating for the creation of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, spearheading land-conservation efforts, and developing strategies for oil-spill control and cleanup at a time when barges moved huge amounts of crude up and down the river.

When Fisk arrived in 2011, the board had just completed a strategic plan for the coming years, which boiled down to growing into its mission and “doing good work well,” a concept he would come back to more than once during his talk with BusinessWest.

With the rebranding, Fisk said, the Greenfield-based CRC is putting a new face on the organization, one aimed at growing its work further and bringing more partners into the fold.

“That goes back to how this organization works,” he said. “It means collaborating and supporting other organizations and bringing a variety of people to the table to deal with these issues. We knew in 1952 we couldn’t do it all. We worked to create local watershed organizations, and today we do work with many smaller organizations and also collaborate with regional and national groups.”

All of that is aimed at turning the Connecticut River into a waterway that’s protective of wildlife, welcoming to migratory fish, and safe for swimmers and boaters. Davidson’s journey, after all, was just the beginning.

Rising Tide

With 10 full-time employees, and revenues that have grown from $480,000 in 2011, when Fisk arrived, to $1.8 million this year, the CRC has grown in myriad ways. “We have very generous supporters and believers in their river,” he said. “That’s the realization of the board’s aim to grow the organization and do more work and do it well. We’re definitely succeeding.”

It does so though three basic missions: Advocacy, public engagement, and restoration.

A deadbeat dam in Groton, Vt.

A deadbeat dam in Groton, Vt. is removed, one of dozens of similar projects the CRC has tackled to make the waterway more welcoming to wildlife.

“We’re an advocacy organization, so we argue for ambitious water-quality standards,” he told BusinessWest. “We certainly have high expectations for our rivers and streams, and that’s why we work hard to get public investment in things like sewer and water systems. We advocate for strong regulations because it’s important to recognize the rivers as a public trust.”

Fisk then explained what public stewardship of the river means to him.

The law says you, as a member of the public, can set the standards. Sixty-five years ago, we had recreational goals, but now, we’ve set the goals much higher. We’ve succeeded, and we know that when you have cleaner, healthier, and more abundant natural resources, your economy flourishes, and quality of life flourishes. We want to see both economic and ecological abundance, and we do that through advocacy.”

“The law says you, as a member of the public, can set the standards. Sixty-five years ago, we had recreational goals, but now, we’ve set the goals much higher. We’ve succeeded, and we know that when you have cleaner, healthier, and more abundant natural resources, your economy flourishes, and quality of life flourishes. We want to see both economic and ecological abundance, and we do that through advocacy.”

The second arm, engaging the public, involves giving people opportunities to collect information that can be used to improve the health of rivers and streams.

“We measure water quality for bacteria, provide people with opportunities to restore freshwater mussels, which do a tremendous amount of work in filtration, and help people remove invasive aquatic plants, the kind of plants that choke waterways and affect the ecosystem and recreation,” he explained. “We have 900 people on the e-mail list, and they’re people who want to do something.”

The “Is It Clean?” initiative, for example, solicits local groups, municipalities, schools, and individuals to monitor for bacteria and post information on a collaborative, interactive website that gives a color-coded bacteria reading for 150 different spots along the river, May through October. They can either test the water themselves or send it to the CRC’s in-house lab.

“You then make your own decision. We don’t tell people to stay out of the water,” he said. “Instead, we’re saying, ‘here’s the information; you take your own risk.’”

These public-engagement efforts, he said, can fill in the gaps where government agencies can’t reach, and also helps cultivate a more sophisticated public that understands environmental issues at the scientific level, are willing to engage in discourse on the issues, and are less likely to be swayed by pseudoscience and climate-change denial.

The CRC’s third point of focus, restoration, requires the most resources in terms of both money and time. One of the goals is to make the river a welcoming place for fish swimming up from the ocean to spawn and multiply. Many of the habitats they might use, however, have been blocked by dams and other barriers.

“The river doesn’t smell anymore — it’s not raw sewage — but what’s missing? There should be millions and millions of migratory fish moving up and down the river, but there aren’t,” Fisk said, due partly to defunct dams and improperly designed culverts. “These are impediments to migratory fish. So we do dam removals, upgrade culverts, repair riverbanks, and plant trees and native vegetation to rebuild the riverbanks.”

The dams are often abandoned mill dams, ranging from four to 20 feet tall. Municipalities are typically grateful for the CRC’s work, as dam-removal projects often lie dormant because there’s no budget for them. “We bid these projects out to excavators and contractors, and we do the final tree planting and restoration work. Basically, we offer turnkey services for these projects.”

These projects reconnect habitats and make communities and individual landowners more adaptable to a changed climate, Fisk said, as well as bringing beneficial flood impacts. “It’s not going to stop flooding, but it will reduce the damage from flooding and make property owners more resilient.”

Just Keep Swimming

The CRC’s next highly visible project will be its annual Source to Sea Cleanup — slated for Sept. 22-23 — which is a comprehensive trash cleanup of the Connecticut River system along the four-state watershed, including rivers and streams, shorelines, parks, boat launches, and trails.

Each fall, volunteer group leaders coordinate local cleanup sites where thousands of participants of all ages and abilities spend a few hours picking up trash. The CRC uses trash data collected during the cleanup to support legislation and other efforts to keep trash out of the environment. That might mean expanding bottle bills to put a deposit on more plastic bottles, making curbside recycling easier and more accessible, and requiring tire manufacturers to run free tire-disposal programs to discourage illegal tire dumping.

The Connecticut River Conservancy

The Connecticut River Conservancy, formerly the Connecticut River Watershed Council, has been based in Greenfield since its inception 65 years ago.

“We also do work to install and increase recreational infrastructure — opportunities for people to get to and enjoy the river in different ways, and help us build business opportunities through recreation,” Fisk said, efforts that include advocating for the completion of the Connecticut River Paddlers Trail, a network of campsites and access points to help lovers of the outdoors navigate the entire length of the river.

Meanwhile, the CRC continues to pursue affiliations with smaller watershed associations, providing the administrative and educational services that will allow affiliates to focus more on programming.

In short, the Connecticut River Conservancy isn’t slowing down. And with climate change presenting what Fisk calls “the most important issue that’s in front of us,” those efforts are more than justified.

“I think there’s a widespread understanding of climate change. People are invested in knowing what it means for them, what they can do, and, in this current political climate, what the initiatives coming out of Washington, D.C. might mean.”

It really boils down, he continued, to that idea of a public trust, of responsibility to each other.

“Living in a watershed means something you do at your home is going to have consequences for people downstream. A farmer in Vermont has an obligation to Long Island Sound. I think people understand that.”

If they don’t, Fisk hopes his current two-week journey — one far cleaner and more pleasant than the one Dr. Joseph Davidson took — will remind them.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]