The Connecticut River

Collectively Conserving Biodiversity Across Four States

From its start at a small, lonely pond near the Canadian border, the Connecticut River runs more than 410 miles - past forests, and farms, small towns and industrial cities built and occasionally ravaged by its power. Fed by 38 major tributaries and draining a basin of 11,985 square miles, the river passes rapids where bald eagles swoop for fish and through tidal marshes teeming with marine and bird life.

Finally, the river broadens into a majestic, mile-wide estuary at Long Island Sound and ultimately a great sandbar - a perfect place for beach-nesting piping plovers and a natural blockage to deep-draft shipping vessels.

The Nature Conservancy's History

The Nature Conservancy has been working in the Connecticut River landscape for more than 40 years. The Conservancy's first land acquisition in the watershed was 46 acres at Burnham Brook in East Haddam, Ct., in 1960. To date, we have protected nearly one quarter of a million acres in the watershed. In the 1980s, TNC began looking at the Connecticut River at the watershed level.

By the late 1990s, the Connecticut River emerged as an area of regional significance during the Conservancy's ecoregional
planning process. TNC staff in the Connecticut River's four states identified five focus areas to prioritize conservation
within the basin.

They include the Connecticut River headwaters and Nulhegan basin in New Hampshire and Vermont, the West River in Vermont, Ashuelot River in New Hampshire, Westfield River in Massachusetts, and the lower Connecticut (several rivers, but focused on the Eightmile and Salmon Rivers) in Connecticut.

In December 2003 a Connecticut River Project director was hired to coordinate conservation strategies at both the watershed-scale level and at the site level in ways that contributes to the whole.

Conservation Targets
  • The river's main stem.
  • Its tributaries, encompassing some 20,000 river miles.
  • Its tidal wetlands and estuary; recognized as globally important.
  • Its floodplains and riparian zones, a complex mosaic of natural communities.
  • Migratory fish, 10 species that need both fresh- and saltwater for their lifecycles
  • Mussel assemblages, including three rare mussel species.
Key Strategies
  • Restore the natural flow, form and other dynamics of the river to improve aquatic diversity in and along the waterway.
  • Improve connectivity, which is essential for healthy floodplain forests and the movement of fish and other species.
  • Reduce the spread of invasive plant and animal species, which displace native species and their habitats; safeguard uninvaded areas.
  • Restore floodplain forests along rivers.
  • Protect and preserve lands critical to the river's health.
Conservation Area Planning

The Connecticut River Project has hosted three, four-state Conservation Area Planning Workshops. These gatherings were the first steps in a collaborative process among the scientific community and partner organizations for the conservation of the Connecticut River basin.

Attending from all four states were representatives from federal and state natural resource staff, academics, and non-profit organizations. There were fisheries biologists, mussel experts, floodplain specialists, hydrologists, geomorphologists, botanists and ecologists.

Using the Conservancy's conservation planning process we identified 1) the important elements of biodiversity in the Connecticut River basin, called conservation targets, 2) threats to these targets and 3) strategies that will further conservation of this important river system.

Critical System Stresses

Altered Flow: With more than 1,000 dams in the watershed, the timing, volume and duration of flow events have been drastically altered the Connecticut River and many of its tributaries.

Altered Sedimentation: Dams, culverts, bridges, roads and other development disrupt the natural movement of sediment

Lack of Connectivity: Dams, culverts, bridges and roads also reduced connectivity of water and organic materials.

Channel Alterations: Along with dams, roads and floodplain development, altered channel flow can change the shape, form and habitat of the river.

Woody Debris and Ice Scour: These elements create important habitat, such as pools and cobbles. Dams and bridges have altered that regime in places.

Altered Community Composition: Natural communities have been altered throughout the basin by many of the processes described above and by numerous invasive species.

Conservation Profile

Freshwater ecosystems: rivers, lakes and wetlands - provide virtually all of the easily accessible drinking water on the planet and support a wide variety of species, including fish and other aquatic organisms, wildlife and plants.

The Nature Conservancy's Connecticut River Program is a four-state initiative. It draws on the scientific and conservation skills of Conservancy chapters in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as The Conservancy's capabilities as a leading international conservation organization.

A suite of strategies have been identified to conserve the Connecticut River's rich biodiversity. This includes restoring flow dynamics, protecting floodplain forests, and reducing the spread of invasive species, among other strategies.

The Conservancy will work with a host of partner organizations and agencies on strategies to protect the Connecticut River corridor. Strong partnerships are the key to conservation success. 

Contact Information

The Nature Conservancy
Kim Lutz
Connecticut River Basin
Program Director

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