Dam Breaks, As West River’s Clean-Up Advances

Brian Holdt CFE PhotoWater flowed anew through a a 30-foot wide opening in the Pond Lily Dam — along with visions of a reclaimed West River where fish and wildlife flourish alongside human recreation.

Brian Holdt CFE PhotoA crew from Save the Sound began the process of removing the dam Thursday morning first by relocating inhabitants like mussels to another part of the watershed. Then it slowly brought down the level of the pond, and made sure that all of the fish in the area were swimming downstream on their own.

Markeshia Ricks PhotoEnvironmentalists have planned for years to deconstruct the dam in the West Hills neighborhood. Thursday’s event was the second in two days to mark progress in the broader effort to clean up the West River.

Director of Habitat Restoration Gwen Macdonald (pictured) said that ultimately the dam’s removal will restore a lost connection for fish such as alewives and blueback herring between the Long Island Sound and the towns of Woodbridge and Bethany.

She said that’s important. Not only will there be one less out of the more than 4,000 dams in Connecticut fragmenting fish habitats, but species will be able to repopulate, which in turn benefits the ospreys and blue herons that eat the fish.

“The Pond Lily Dam removal is part of a greater restoration effort through the whole West River Watershed,” she said. “We want to restore the watershed for fish and wildlife, and also for people and restore water quality in the watershed.”

After the dam is removed a new 1,200-foot river channel will be constructed on the Pond Lily Nature Preserve, and could be ready by the spring for members of the community to come help with riverbank restoration projects. The public will get a chance to take a closer look at the work Nov. 5.

The dam is on land owned by the New Haven Land Trust, which has taken part in the project.

Frank DeLeo (pictured) of the Woodbridge-based West River Restoration and Flood Mitigation Committee said the dam removal has been a long time coming.

Floods have sparked discussion about removing the dam since the mid-1950s. The last big flood, back in 2007, waterlogged much of Amity Road and led to a greater push to try to remove the dam and restore the river. He said he’s looking forward to a day when he can take some of the kids from groups like Solar Youth out on the West River to do some fly fishing.

Watershed Milestone

Paul Bass PhotoThe dam event came a day after dozens of environmentalists gathered at the Edgewood Park gazebo to celebrate a second West River clean-up milestone: the completion of a detailed management plan for the West River Watershed. A coalition of groups led by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment‘s (CFE) Save the Sound initiative prepared the plan with the backing of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). The plan documents the ecological threats to the 25-mile West River, which winds through six communities, and charts ways to clean it through limiting storm runoff and discharge of sewage from combined-sewer overflows at four spots during big storms.

Read the full plan here.

The plan now makes it easier to obtain money to carry out those plans. DEEP has already committed $100,000 to support two as-yet-unnamed projects, officials announced at the Wednesday afternoon gazebo gathering. Recommendations include installing rain gardens and bioswales, combining sewer overflows, managing invasive species, increasing public access to the river, protecting and restoring tree canopies, preventing illegal dumping in tributaries that lead into the West River, and “addressing homeless encampments” off Legion Avenue and Marginal Drives hard by spots in the river where sewage gets discharged (through clean-ups, public restrooms, and support for homeless shelters).

The Greater New Haven Water Pollution Authority has succeeded in reducing from 55 million to 14 million to the number gallons of combined sewage that enter the river each year from overflows of its combined storm and sanitary lines.

Ideally, the river would have a 25 to 30-foot buffer protecting it from parking lots, say, noted CFE program manager Kendall Barbery. She stood by the riverbanks near the Edgewood Park basketball courts, mere feet form the parking lot. Given that many spots are close to parking lots or buildings, a river preservationist’s job is to find ways to minimize runoff and protect the trees and other native plantings.

Non-native plants, like the knotwood in the above photo with Barbery, crowds out native species that keep birds and fish fed, she pointed out. So park “friends” have been working on clearing out the non-natives.

“Before you know it, we’ll all be using this river just like people did 100 years ago,” State Rep. Mary Mushinsky remarked at the Wednesday event.

“We’re not at the point where we’ll see [alewives] spawning in the West River next year. We start” making that possible through lowering the river’s high bacteria levels, said New Haven State Rep. Pat Dillon (pictured), a key supporter of the watershed plan from the outset.

“The combined sewer overflows into the West River are worse than the combined sewer overflows into the harbor,” Dillon noted. “That makes no sense.”

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posted by: Rep. Pat Dillon on October 22, 2015  6:21pm

Thank you to the many people who brought this so far, and I look forward to making this plan work so families can safely access the West River for kayaking and even fishing.
I misspoke about the salmon, alewives would be fine. Imagine safe fishing.
Our thinking has advanced. Not so long ago, with high oil prices, we preserved dams for hydropower, and now we are preserving fishways. Not long ago we only thought of sewer separation, and now it’s green infrastructure. On to the next steps.

posted by: WillBrinton on October 22, 2015  8:55pm

My father had a friend in college in the early 1960s who worked the night shift at the Pond Lily Company. His job was to open up the gates in the middle of the night & let various waste products out into the river. Apparently the river turned bright shades of green, red, etc. He was then instructed to close the valves a couple hours before sunrise so the river would flush “clean” & not be noticeable. And that was the good old days!

posted by: HewNaven on October 23, 2015  11:44am

This kind of thing gives me hope for the future of Homo Sapiens. Maybe we do have a chance to survive our own bad decisions…