WAMC Northeast Public Radio | By Jim Levulis
Photo: Julia Rogers
A 41-mile section of the Housatonic River in Connecticut has received the federal designation of Wild and Scenic. River advocates believe the acknowledgement will lead to better protections for the waterway.
As part of the recently passed omnibus bill in Washington, the stretch of the Housatonic from the Massachusetts border to the Boardman Bridge in New Milford is now part of the National Park Service’s Partnership Wild and Scenic Rivers Program. Lynn Werner is the executive director of the Housatonic Valley Association, one of the groups that advocated for the designation.
“It means that the Housatonic River joins other rivers across the country, where Congress has acknowledged that, ‘Hey, we’ve got something really unique, really special and deserving of care going forward,’” said Werner.
Bill Tingley chairs the Housatonic River Commission and he’s been part of the organization for more than 40 years.
“It’s a pretty big tool in our toolbox in terms of keeping the river the way we’d like it, which is the way it is, or even better,” Tingley said. “I’ve seen a lot of change for the better in my time. But it gives us the chance to have conversations with people like the Army Corps, Department of Transportation, entities that had to pay no attention to us at all, in terms of anything that they wanted to do along the banks of the river or in the river.”
Tingley says as a result of the designation, about $200,000 is expected to flow to the Commission to implement its management plan for this section of the river. The Commission, which represents seven towns along the waterway, is compiling a budget for how to spend that first annual allocation. One major area of focus will be public access. With the stretch already known for fly fishing and paddling, Werner says usage jumped after the pandemic hit.
“In 2019, we counted about 850 visitors to the river,” Werner explained. “And in 2020, we were well over 2,000. And doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you consider there’s really only a handful of public access sites on the river. And these sites are not designed for crowds of people. We had a problem. A lot of the towns on the river, just didn’t have the resources to manage all of these people coming to the river.”
Tingley says the Commission will also be updating its management plan, last adjusted more than 15 years ago.
Although active PCB cleanup of the Housatonic continues – with future cleanup plans facing local opposition to the north in Berkshire County, Massachusetts – Tingley says these 41 miles in northwest Connecticut are in pretty good shape. The chemicals entered the waterway from General Electric’s Pittsfield facility from the 1930s until 1977. The federal government banned the substances in 1979. Tingley, an active paddler, says you’d be hard-pressed to find PCBs in the water running down this designated portion.
“I will say that it’s fantastic that from our standpoint, that the source point has been identified and has been cleaned up. That is really great. I never thought I’d see anything done in my lifetime,” Tingley said. “I can remember coming around at flood stage in March in Pittsfield and coming on a trip down to the [Long Island] Sound, and I came around the corner and saw a lot of 55-gallon drums that were being eroded in the bank with a nice black ooze coming out of them. And I thought, ‘Gee, that doesn’t look good.’”
Still there is a fish consumption advisory for the river and management areas require catch and release. Tingley adds that the river’s health has also improved as dams have switched to what’s called “run-of-the-river” hydroelectricity rather than holding back water and releasing it.
“When you’re on that river, there’s a lot of times, a lot of stretches, where you can be paddling along, and you look and you don’t see anything, except what’s there,” Tingley detailed. “The trees, the hemlocks, the rocks, the ferns, the birds, the water, the rock, everything. It’s just so beautiful, you can’t believe it.”
Discussions about seeking a Wild & Scenic designation for this stretch of the Housatonic date back to the 1970s after the legislation creating the program was signed in 1968.
“I actually guided the Parks guys down when they were studying it in ’78. And the river, it was beautiful, but it wasn’t as nice as it is now,” Tingley recalled. “People hadn’t quite caught up with the idea of not throwing a refrigerator or a couch or something down the bank, you know, that was still something that could happen. But it was just not a user-friendly bill at that point. I mean, when they formed that bill, it was mostly for rivers that were in wilderness areas, or areas that were quite unpopulated, shall we say, as opposed to rivers that have a bunch of Connecticut Yankees living along the sides of them.”
Tingley and Werner say over the years the Wild & Scenic program changed to allow for more local control and input as it was put into practice in more populated areas. In part, it was the increased usage during the pandemic that led the organizations and the communities along the river to dive in and go for the designation.
“So on the Housatonic River, you’ve had a long and rich history of people coming here from all over the world to fish, and suddenly in 2020 we had many, many other people coming here, who wanted to relax, and feel cool and be outside in a safe environment,” Werner said. “COVID was a real motivator for that. And now you’ve got a conflict, it’s kind of hard to fish when you’ve got 50 people swimming in a river, right? So, how do we manage that, because both of those uses are legitimate and we need to find a way to enable the river to offer that in a safe way. And in a way that doesn’t destroy the very thing we love, which is the river.”