Three rivers – the Quinnipiac, the Mill and the West – run through New Haven and empty into Long Island Sound. Historically, they provided both transportation and livelihoods for the native peoples and settlers who harvested fish, oysters and other foods. Today, while some still fish their waters, these rivers mainly serve to enhance New Haven’s quality of life, through recreation and through diversifying the ecosystem and the landscape.
At 38 miles, the Quinnipiac River is the longest of these rivers. For more than a century, the Quinnipiac was a polluted river, as many industries along its banks dumped waste into it and fouled the air in the surrounding communities, in violation of state regulations.(1) According to Traci Iott, with the Bureau of Water Protection and Land Reuse at the CT Department of Environmental Protection, the river has been contaminated with industrial copper, lead and zinc, and pollutants like E coli, hydrocarbons, pesticides and PCBs, from both industrial and residential sources for years. Flow problems due to permitted withdrawals exacerbate the problems.
Despite improvements, the Quinnipiac still needs help.
In the early 1980s, Nancy Alderman tracked down the noxious smell at her house and discovered that the problem emanated from the Upjohn Company in North Haven. “They made batch chemicals on demand, for pesticides, paints, photographic equipment – it was the dark ages,” says Alderman. Through a lawsuit filed by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment (CFE) in 1985, where she served on the board, Upjohn was fined $1 million for violating clean water laws.(2)
“Upjohn had to invest in air and water pollution control improvements,” says Curt Johnson, long-time senior attorney and program director at CFE. “For the business and environmental law community, it was a real wake-up call that these laws really meant something,” he adds. “People started taking the laws much more seriously.”
In 1990, a settlement reached with Upjohn created the Quinnipiac River Fund, administered by The Community Foundation, and the income generated from investing that money has been used for the past quarter-century to fund research, restoration and recreation on the river; because the endowment has grown, grant distributions have grown to $100,000 annually in recent years. A committee meets every year to recommend for approval by The Community Foundation Board about a dozen competitive proposals ranging between $2,000 and $20,000. Among the recipients are the Quinnipiac River Watershed Association, the Watershed Partnership , the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) and many academically affiliated groups. The Watershed Partnership’s Safe Grounds campaign, along with Nancy Alderman’s nonprofit, Environment and Human Health Inc., got legislation passed banning the use of pesticides at schools and daycare centers – some of which would otherwise make their way into the rivers and Long Island Sound. The Partnership also convinced groundskeepers at the governor’s mansion to stop using pesticides. NOFA produced an organic lawn and turf handbook(3) to help homeowners keep fertilizers out of the river.
Alderman says the fund has “done a lot of good work, non-point pollution(4) work; worked with inland wetlands commissions; funded some very good research. But you can't clean up the river without tightening permits or doing the legal work that was done in the first place to get the fund.”
Learn more about the work of Quinnpiac River Fund grantees.
The Quinnipiac River Watershed Association (QRWA) focuses on the inter-related goals of education, recreation and rehabilitation to protect the river and its watershed. Where people were once warned not to go near the River in the ‘50s and ‘60s because it was so polluted, towns are now building facilities to bring people down for recreation, such as fishing, canoeing and kayaking.
The QRWA has built three canoeable trails along three sections of the river, which will eventually be joined. Boaters can navigate through an ecosystem where wildlife that had disappeared has made a comeback – especially osprey and eagles. The QRWA has helped by building lots of osprey platforms above the river.
Several groups that have received funding have organized teams to observe and record problems on the river, and report them to the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal EPA. Many grants to universities focus on research, including multiple-year grants to the University of New Haven for its GIS (geographic information systems) program to collect data and create mapping systems.
River protectors are trying to educate property abutters about the importance of vegetated buffers to filter out contaminants like fertilizer, dog waste, and road runoff that now wash into the river and then to Long Island Sound. The SoundVision Action Plan, written and unanimously adopted in August 2011 by the 37 members of the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Long Island Sound Study, has four primary goals: to protect clean water to promote a healthy Sound; to maintain safe, healthy habitat for all of the life in the Sound; to promote sustainable Long Island Sound communities; and to invest in an “economically vibrant” Sound.
You may be interested in learning more about and giving to other environmental organizations and Foundation funds, consider donating to a local nonprofit on giveGreater.org, volunteering, or creating a permanent fund designated to preserving the environment. Already have a fund at The Community Foundation? Make a grant recommendation by logging on to DonorCentral. You can create change with just a click of the keyboard.
(2) The 1972 Clean Water Act was the most comprehensive of the laws and regulations to reduce and manage the amounts of point source pollution.
(4)Non-point pollution does not meet the legal definition of "point source" in section 502(14) of the Clean Water Act. Point source pollution is contamination that can be traced to an easily identified origin, such as a pipe, ditch, channel or container.
(Updated July 2012)