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Together, Restoring the River's Pulse

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.

The Partnership

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 Plan

The Aquarion/Conservancy partnership plan is two-fold:

  • First: To look at the infrastructure of reservoirs in the watershed and the water supply system connecting the reservoirs. “We’re working with engineers to see where the water’s coming from, how it’s moved between reservoirs, how much is moving downstream and how important this supply is to the drinking water service area,” explains Sally Harold, Saugatuck River Watershed Project Director. “We’re also looking at the size of pipe conveying the water, and how Aquarion might reasonably accommodate our suggestions for restoring the river’s variable flow.”
  • Second: To work with river experts – geologists, hydrologists, plant ecologists, and others – to examine stream segments below the reservoirs to describe what’s there and should be there, and what’s changed because of alterations in the river’s flow. Says Harold, “If we used to have certain species before the dams were installed, and the reservoirs were managed in a certain way so as to lose the river’s pulses, the experts might come up with a simple fix that would tweak the water operations to restore the river’s flow and ensure the health of river-dependent species.”
  • Another partnership initiative is aimed at protecting the mature eels that annually migrate down river to the Sargasso Sea.  In many river systems, these fish become entrapped in water treatment plants or hydro-power facilities and die. Aquarion and The Conservancy have been collaborating on designing a system that will create safe passage for eels moving from the Aspetuck Reservoir to Long Island Sound, bypassing the water treatment plant. The Long Island Sound Futures Fund and Aquarion have contributed financial support for this project.
  • What progress has been made to date? Following the November, 2007 signing of the partnership agreement, the group convened an expert’s workshop in February, 2008 to outline the plan, changes to look for in the river, and the outcomes desired by all parties. Consultants, scientists skilled in evaluating river systems, were hired in April, 2008 and have been preparing a report on their findings. A second workshop to review the data and the consultants’ suggestions is planned for this fall. At that workshop, everyone will work together to determine what the river releases should look like and what is feasible considering Aquarion’s needs, the system infrastructure and other factors.
A Win-Win Project

“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

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