For much of the past 55 years, portions of the Norwalk River were greatly affected by the same sources of pollution as many Fairfield County watersheds. Until recently, fish populations were low, beavers had left, and birds of prey like ospreys were rarely found.
But for the past 16 years, community organizations and municipal groups like Wilton’s Department of Environmental Affairs have worked together to help foster a healthy river, and the Environmental Protection Agency has taken notice.
In late January, the EPA named two sections of the 25-mile-long Norwalk River examples of “Waterbodies Improved,” which designates stretches of waterway that have been placed on, and subsequently removed from, state lists of impaired waters.
“Since 1998 Norwalk River Watershed Initiative (NRWI) activities have catalyzed changes in septic system maintenance, lawn care, pet waste, and municipal stormwater management requirements. These activities have reduced bacteria levels and improved water quality. As a result, the two river segments were removed from Connecticut’s CWA section 303(d) list of impaired waters in 2012,” the EPA said on its website.
Those two segments are near Old Mill Road in Wilton and the Stonehenge area of Ridgefield.
Historically, the Norwalk River was important to early residents, as it provided much-needed access to clean water. It also provided power for the many small, water-driven mills that dotted its shores, said Patricia Sesto, Wilton Director of Environmental Affairs.
“There are some old property lines that jut out oddly to pull the river [into a piece of property]. Those sorts of things say it was important for people to have water [from the river],” she said.
“On Norwalk River there were also a number of mills. Mills were definitely a factor associated with the river. Its volume of water made it inconsistent for sustainable businesses, but small mills could survive.”
Large problems like industrial waste and septic discharge in the river were mostly corrected by the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, said Jeff Yates, president of Mianus Trout Unlimited. But small-scale pollution represented another hurdle until 1998, when he and other community members joined together to fight back.
“There are many challenges faced when restoring suburban and urban rivers,” he said. “We were working to undo what was — frankly — 40 years of bad land use decisions. There were issues of putting development in flood plains, of not thinking about where storm water runoff goes.
“It wasn’t part of the thinking of the time, and untangling all of that is difficult and time-consuming,” he said.
Individual levels of pollution, Mr. Yates said, now constitute a bigger problem than large-scale dumping.
“The Clean Water Act helped address many large issues, but now the biggest challenge is every small input,” he said, “every day-to-day activity that affects the health of the river.”
The EPA’s recognition of the Norwalk River, Ms. Sesto said, is a sign that the community’s efforts at conserving the river have been effective.
“Even if it is just people who scoop dog poop on a more consistent basis, or think about what exactly they are dumping down a storm drain. It’s the outcome of all kinds of individual decisions. We have made a difference. Do the small things really matter? Yes, they do,” she said.
The commitment of many different organizations and government agencies to one initiative, Ms. Sesto said, makes the success of the Norwalk River even sweeter.
“The neat thing about the initiative is that it is comprised of non-governmental associations, the seven towns on the watershed … state agencies and the EPA. People are involved at all levels,” she said. The seven towns are Wilton, New Canaan, Redding, Norwalk, Ridgefield, Weston, and Lewisboro, N.Y.
Mr. Yates echoed the praise of Ms. Sesto, saying the partnership between many different bodies has greatly aided the river’s return to health.
“The work the partnership has been doing under the initiative has been instrumental in driving improvements in the river,” he said.
In Wilton specifically, Ms. Sesto said, the Inland Wetlands board is highly effective at aiding conservation efforts.
“Our Inland Wetlands board does a good job understanding the subtleties of land use on each and every application that comes before them. Before any decision, they talk about water quality and water quantity issues,” Ms. Sesto said.
The Norwalk River is open to fishermen between the third weekend of April and the beginning of February. Mr. Yates said the fish are healthy, though he warns against taking too much stock out of the river.
“The river is very healthy, and the fish in it are perfectly fine to eat,” he said. “I would ask people to be judicious in how many fish they kill out of the river. You’re allowed to take five fish that are over nine inches, but I would encourage people not to take five fish from the river every time they go fishing because it can’t bear that kind of pressure. A fish every once in a while is fine.”
He said the wildlife habitat the Norwalk River provides is a great resource for school children in the area.
“It’s a resource that all of our children can use. Leaving some fish in the river for the kids to catch” is the right thing to do, he said. “It’s a huge benefit and we try to encourage people to practice catch-and-release, if only because the trout have more worth in the river than on your plate.”