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Return To The Rivers: Connecticut's Waterways Reflect The State's History

The widely held assumption that Connecticut was complete wilderness when the first European settlers arrived in the early 17th Century is belied by what archaeologists have found along the state's rivers.

"It was not wilderness," said Nicholas Bellantoni, a professor of archaeology at the University of Connecticut and the designated state archaeologist. To be sure, Connecticut essentially was a vast forest in 1600, but along major rivers, especially the Connecticut River, there were numerous little pockets of cleared land where Native Americans grew corn, beans and squash.

Where Hartford's Park River meets the Connecticut, there was a settlement; where the Hockanum River in East Hartford meets the Connecticut, there was a settlement. Crops also were grown in the fertile flatlands along other major rivers like the Farmington and the Housatonic.

"Those were desirable areas," Bellantoni said. When the first European settlers arrived, they went right for those fertile, flat and already cleared patches of land. "We settled in places that Native Americans had already settled."

If what would become Connecticut was not totally wild, it nonetheless was pristine early in the 17th Century. Other than the occasional sound of handmade tools, the rivers were peaceful places without the noise of cars, trucks, industry and powerboats.

Even today, Connecticut's waterways are a significant and usually appealing aspect of the state's landscape, but, with rare exceptions, they are radically different from what they were four centuries ago.

Since the 17th century, hundreds of brooks, streams and rivers have been dammed, sometimes wiping out entire strains of migratory fish like salmon and shad, and fundamentally altering the ecology of long stretches of river.

The Park River used to flow past the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. (Courtesy of Richard L. Mahoney)

Connecticut's waterways were heavily abused by industrial and sewage pollution. Many have been degraded by invasive plant or animal species. Native fish populations often have been greatly reduced as exotic species were introduced, usually intentionally. Parts of some rivers, like the Park River in Hartford, were deemed so polluted or flood-prone that they were entombed in culverts, covered over and paved.

Given all the things that have happened to rivers in Connecticut, "There can't be a pristine river, theoretically speaking," said Robert M. Thorson, a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut and an authority on the history of the state's landscapes, including rivers.

But in the early 17th century, the rivers were healthy, and for Native Americans, they were enormously significant. "Native Americans had two means of travel; they walked and they canoed. Rivers were important highways for them," Bellantoni said.

Not only were they transportation corridors, they were obviously a source of water and food, especially in the spring when huge runs of shad and salmon returned from the sea to spawn.

European settlers also used the rivers for water, food and transportation. But, over time, especially as the population in Connecticut grew substantially, rivers became increasingly troubled.

Especially during the late 18th century and continuing until the mid-19th century, Connecticut was deforested, a landscape almost entirely agrarian, with huge impacts for the streams and rivers. With little tree cover, water temperatures in streams rose, stressing species such as the native brook trout, a colorful fish that needs cold, clean water to survive.

An example is Susquetonscut Brook in Lebanon, intensively studied by UConn's Thorson. Analyzing soils throughout the brook's watershed, Thorson and colleagues determined that any impact on the brook and its surrounding wetlands by Native Americans was so slight it could not be detected. But they found that during the Colonial period, extensive deforestation as land was cleared for farming significantly changed the brook and the wetlands.

With the land cleared and animals grazing in pastures, stormwater poured off sloping hillsides far more rapidly than before settlement, carrying enormous amounts of sediment with it, which then choked the brook and some of the wetlands.

"In some cases it created wetlands, in some cases it filled wetlands," Thorson said.

Like much of the rest of the cleared land in Connecticut, the watershed of Susquetonscut Brook is now reforested, but the brook itself was so altered by deforestation that the long-ago changes can still be measured by the researchers as they analyze soils.

The Industrial Age

Meanwhile, in the 17th century, colonists dammed smaller streams to power grist mills and saw mills. By the late 18th century, dams began to appear on larger rivers, even the Connecticut in Massachusetts, where a dam built in 1798 at Turners Falls is blamed for wiping out runs of Atlantic salmon because it prevented the fish as they returned from the sea from reaching their spawning brooks upriver.

The Derby Dam and power plant. (Michael McAndrews | Hartford Courant)

Douglas M. Thompson, a professor of geology at Connecticut College in New London, sees dams as having the single greatest impact on rivers in Connecticut. "They are just everywhere," Thompson said. "There are thousands of them all over the place."

In fact, the state believes there are at least 4,000 dams remaining in Connecticut on its approximately 6,000 miles of streams, said Steve Gephard, a supervising biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Many of them are small and no longer functional, but they still negatively affect rivers. In recent years, the state has removed a series of dams that no longer served any purpose, but blocked migratory fish species.

Despite the dams, Connecticut by 1870 launched a campaign to restore salmon to Connecticut and tributaries like the Farmington River. There were skeptics and critics aplenty.

In a June 4, 1878, letter to the editor of the Courant, a reader who signed himself "Salmon Brooks" complained that the salmon and shad restoration work had no chance of success on the Farmington River unless some kind of fish passageway was installed at a dam in the Poquonock section of Windsor that blocked migratory fish from spawning beds upstream.

Many decades later, a fishway was constructed at the dam — the Rainbow Dam. But as the letter writer predicted, the 19th century effort to restore salmon and rebuild shad populations failed.

Even as Connecticut tried to restore salmon and shad, fisheries managers were introducing carp into the Connecticut, a species not even native to North America but thought to be a worthwhile food fish for the masses. It now is regarded as a nuisance species because carp rip out and feed on bottom vegetation, roiling the water with bottom sediment as they do so. They are abundant in many larger Connecticut rivers, especially the Connecticut.

It was the Industrial Revolution, especially after 1850, and a rapidly growing population, that would dramatically degrade Connecticut streams and rivers.

Industry dumped its waste directly into rivers. Cities did the same with human waste.

For example, on July 6, 1886, The Courant reported on the annual meeting of the State Board of Health, held the previous day at the State Capitol. A series of speakers complained to the board about stream pollution on the south branch of the Park River in Newington. It was "years ago a clear beautiful stream full of trout and other fish," J. S. Kirkham told the board. But soon after New Britain built a sewage disposal system and flushed wastes into the headwaters of the stream, it became "an open sewer giving out foul smells, causing illness and spoiling pasture lands along its banks," Kirkham complained.

Despite the complaints, there was little progress in cleaning up rivers. With the beginning of World War I, followed not long after by the Great Depression and World War II, Connecticut and the nation had little energy or resources to deal with the mess the rivers had become. Recreational use of rivers fell off sharply.

By now, factories were much bigger, dumping industrial wastes directly into rivers like the Housatonic and its major tributaries in western Connecticut, including the Naugatuck and Still rivers.

On the Naugatuck River, especially in Waterbury and Naugatuck, where the banks were lined with factories by the 1940s and 1950s, industries spewed tens of thousands of gallons of untreated wastewater directly into the river, often staining the river a mustard color one day, chartreuse or purple the next. There was little aquatic life in the river.

Resurging Rivers

Only in the 1960s did a powerful environmental movement emerge, leading to the first Earth Day in 1970. In Connecticut, the movement emerged early with conservationists demanding action.

In 1962, aware of the complaints, Gov. John N. Dempsey called a group of conservationists and planners to his office and told them he needed a plan to restore rivers and other natural resources.

Conservationist and author William H. Whyte took on the task. Months later, he produced a report that described the Connecticut environment as a sad mix of filthy rivers, rampant sprawl and disappearing wetlands. With the public clamoring for action, cleaning up the rivers instantly was a priority.

Connecticut was among the earliest states to seriously tackle water pollution, creating its own Clean Water Act in 1967 and beginning work to either upgrade antiquated wastewater treatment plants or build new ones where none existed. Industry was told to treat its wastes before discharging them into a river.

At the same time, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire and the federal government began a massive second effort to restore Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River. This time, fish passages were installed on major dams, but that campaign, too, appears to have failed, as the program has been drastically scaled back after 40 years of minimal progress. One point of view is that the river is so changed over the past 200 years that it can no longer support salmon.

By the early 1970s, with the new water pollution standards well along, water quality in the rivers began to improve. Within 15 years, there was dramatic improvement in water quality in many rivers throughout the state.

Suddenly, there was a resurgence of recreation on rivers, many of them once badly polluted. A striking example is the Farmington River, mostly in north-central Connecticut, where especially on weekends the river today can be crowded with anglers, kayakers, canoeists, and tubers, along with many hundreds of people who walk along or sit by the river.

But the easiest water quality improvements have been made, and many of the state's rivers, while greatly improved, are not as clean as they could be. The federal Clean Water Act set a goal of having the nation's rivers fishable and swimmable by 1983. That goal has never been met.

Environmentalists agree there is progress — a section of the once-troubled Norwalk River in Fairfield County in recent years has improved enough to be counted as a success story. But overall, they say that in the last decade progress is marginal.

Margaret Miner, director of the Connecticut Rivers Alliance, thinks rivers have reached a plateau. "Some rivers are getting worse, some are getting a little better, but the general upward trend is leveling off," she said.

Two hard-to-fix problems remain — one of them separating combined storm and sanitary sewers in older cities like Hartford, Middletown, Norwich and New Haven. During major storms, so much water passes through combined sewers that wastewater treatment plants cannot cope with the volume, and the wastewater is flushed into rivers untreated. Some progress has been made over the past two decades, but major work remains to be done.

"We have $2 billion to $3 billion worth of needs in Connecticut alone," said Dennis J. Greci, a supervising sanitary engineer with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "That is the big challenge, the elephant in the room if you will, that really needs to be dealt with because we are still dealing with raw sewage making its way into our water bodies."

The other big problem is something called non-point source pollution, which is the water that runs off streets, parking lots, lawns and other surfaces, picking up a toxic stew of contaminants that include litter, oil residues, pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, dangerous household chemicals and other pollutants.

The state regulates stormwater runoff for larger developments, but most properties — notably, homes — are not regulated. Controlling pollution from neighborhoods is voluntary, and so far must be encouraged by public education.

"In many ways, we as a society have to do the little things, and as a group have those little things add up to something big. We are not going to regulate the need to pick up after your dog when you take your dog for a walk, but it makes a difference if collectively we all do that," said Traci Iott, supervising environmental analyst at DEEP.

Contact Steve Grant at steve@thestevegrantwebsite.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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