Protecting Our Rivers

The recreational opportunities and biodiversity on and along the Greater New Haven rivers enhance the region's quality of life. Ensuring that their waters are clean is important for the health of the public and the environment.

Three rivers – the Quinnipiac, the Mill and the West – run through New Haven and empty into Long Island Sound. Historically, they were important food sources for Native Americans and early settlers. Later, they powered the mills and factories that established the regions early economic success. Today, the recreational opportunities and biodiversity on and along these rivers enhance Greater New Haven's quality of life. Ensuring that their waters are clean is important for the health of the public and the environment.

The Numbers

Cleaning the Quinnipiac

At 38 miles, the Quinnipiac River is the longest of these rivers. Starting in the 19th century, the Quinnipiac was heavily polluted by the many industries located along its banks. Over its history, the river has been contaminated with industrial copper, lead and zinc, and pollutants like E coli, hydrocarbons, pesticides and PCBs, according to Traci Iott of the Bureau of Water Protection and Land Reuse at the CT Department of Environmental Protection, the river. Flow problems due to permitted withdrawals exacerbate the problems.

In the early 1980s, Nancy Alderman tracked down the noxious smell at her North Haven house and discovered that the problem emanated from the Upjohn Company. "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 laws1.

"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."

A Fund is Born

In 1990, a settlement reached with Upjohn created the Quinnipiac River Fund, administered by The Community Foundation. The endowment's growth has funded annual grant distributions of more than $100,000 in recent years. The grants support recreation, restoration and research projects on the river, such as recent studies by local colleges and universities on new classes of chemicals turning up in the river and surrounding watershed.

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., recently helped pass legislation 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 handbook2 to help homeowners keep fertilizers out of the river.

Alderman says the fund has "done a lot of good work, non-point pollution3 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."

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.

Recreational Opportunities

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.

Household Pollutants

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.

Works Cited

1. The 1972 Clean Water Act was the most comprehensive of the laws and regulations to reduce and manage the amounts of point source pollution.

2. Organic Lawn Care Handbook

3. 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.

Additional Resources

© The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven
January 2014