Perhaps it’s odd to think of rivers having a pulse. But rivers naturally ebb and flow, swell and sink with the seasons, in a way like a single, year-long sea tide. And the river’s pulse informs the cycle of life for the plants and animals living in and around it.
Many aquatic and terrestrial species receive natural cues from the pulse of the river. For instance, fish that spawn in the spring sense, from the current’s pull as fresh rainwater swells the river and it flows faster, that it’s time to swim upstream. And the higher water allows them to traverse more of the river.
Even flooding cycles help the ecology. When river water crests its banks and runs over the land, it disperses the seeds of dying flowers and vegetation throughout a floodplain and provides a growing source of nourishment and shelter for animal and bird species.
But the natural variability of a river’s flow can be curtailed when the waterway is managed and dammed to accommodate public demand, as for drinking water. Even when water typically runs high, such as in the spring, if there is great demand for water, the river will not rise. The river’s flow also can be restricted and regulated as it moves through pipelines, is impeded by small, unmanaged dams, or is squeezed between hard shorelines that don’t allow access to a floodplain.
What happens when the river loses its pulse? Will its restriction disrupt fish migration and deplete floodplain habitats? If so, is there a viable, cost-effective way to restore the river’s variability by managing it differently? And is there a way meet the needs of all who depend on the river: humans, plants and animals alike? That’s what Aquarion Water Company and The Nature Conservancy are working together to determine.
In November, 2007, Aquarion Water Company and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) signed a partnership agreement to develop a sustainable water management plan for the Saugatuck River. This plan would protect the River’s rich diversity of plants and animals while ensuring clean drinking water, recreation and other essential community services throughout the watershed.
Aquarion and the Conservancy actually have a history of working together. In 2003, Aquarion’s parent company agreed to join forces with the State and the Conservancy to permanently protect 15,000 acres, now called the Centennial Watershed State Forest. This land is now jointly managed by the Conservancy, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and Aquarion Water Company for conservation purposes.
The Saugatuck River Watershed is an ideal forum for this groundbreaking project; it covers over 57,000 acres in southwest Connecticut and provides drinking water for over 300,000 people in Fairfield County. Despite its proximity to the New York metropolitan area, it is one of the healthiest river systems in southwest Connecticut, and many of its streams still support native brook trout, a species in decline throughout New England. People also enjoy fishing, hiking and cross-country skiing throughout the watershed.
The Aquarion/Conservancy partnership plan is two-fold:
“What we’re aiming for,” says Harold, “is for Aquarion to be able to continue to meet consumer demand while providing river flows that help us to meet environmental needs — a middle ground where we can work together. This is truly a win-win project.”
Once the plan is finalized, Aquarion may modify the operations of the Saugatuck and Aspetuck Reservoirs to improve stream flow and consider future release adjustments at other points in the system it operates. Ongoing monitoring of ecological results will be a centerpiece of the plan.
“Aquarion understands that sound management of freshwater resources is key to maintaining the quality of life in our region,” said Aquarion Company President and CEO Charles V. Firlotte. “We believe that it is possible to create a flow management plan for the Saugatuck River basin that will achieve both public water supply and river ecosystem health goals, and we look forward to working with The Nature Conservancy and other stakeholders in making this concept a reality that will benefit our customers and neighbors for years to come.”
Story by Linda Stonehill