A healthier Naugatuck River boosts wildlife and recreation

TORRINGTON — On the banks of the Naugatuck River on Franklin Street, a fearless duck named Clarence sometimes eats out of Brian Corringham’s hand.

“He did it several days in a row last summer,” said Corringham, a Long Island native who now lives near the Naugatuck River here. Of the hundreds of ducks he feeds daily from a coffee can full of cracked corn, only Clarence, a loner without tail feathers, has dared approach him.

“They are wild animals,” Corringham said. “They talk, they giggle when excited. It’s happy to giggle. I read that somewhere. Feed them and they are happy.

Several species of ducks and other waterfowl feed and nest near the river. Native and stocked fish, wood turtles, American eels and other aquatic creatures inhabit the creek, which joins the Housatonic River at Derby. It is the only major river that is completely contained within Connecticut’s borders, according to naugatuckriver.net.

The Naugatuck River has experienced a remarkable recovery over the past half century. It still has a long way to go and recent events are encouraging for environmentalists.

Between Torrington and Derby the river drops 540 feet, or about 13 feet per mile. “The size and steep gradient of the river made it an ideal location for hydroelectric development, prompting an increase in industrial development in the 1700s and 1800s,” the website states. “Unfortunately, centuries of industrial abuse left the river essentially lifeless for most of the 20th century, ranking it among the most polluted rivers in the country.”

But citizen groups and Connecticut state action changed the course of events. As the website further states, “The passage of Connecticut’s Clean Water Act in 1967 and the passage of the federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972, gave the state the legal authority to finally combat the degradation of water quality in the river By 1976, … the eight municipal sewage treatment plants (WWTPs) discharging into the Naugatuck River had installed secondary waste treatment.

Cleaning up the pollution was only part of the problem. Dams along the river still prevented fish from swimming upstream to spawn. Many unused dams were knocked down and fish ladders were built, but Kinneytown Dam in Seymour remained a barrier, according to Save the Sound and the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, which represents 19 municipalities along the river.

In a mid-December 2022 release, the NVCOG announced that $15 million had been made available through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Restoring Fish Passage through Barrier Removal grant program. The funds are for the removal of the Kinneytown Dam, which is owned by HydroLand, an off-line hydroelectric facility.

“A lot of this dam removal comes from the focus on migratory species coming from the ocean,” said Nate Nardi-Cyrus, deputy town planner for Torrington. “So things like herring, shad, those things that would be further downstream. They don’t jump very well, so it’s not like a salmon situation where they fly over waterfalls.

He said that the American eel is a species that would benefit from removal of barriers such as the Kinneytown Dam. “This is a somewhat endangered species that is actually the opposite of a salmon or a shad. They breed in the ocean and then they ride the currents like those tiny little eels. Only around 10% cross the barriers, but there are so many that some have been seen in Torrington, he said. They live to adulthood and then return downstream to the ocean to spawn and die, he said.

Nate Nardi-Cyrus, Deputy City Planner of Torrington, and a deer head that accompanied the desk.

Nate Nardi-Cyrus, Deputy City Planner of Torrington, and a deer head that accompanied the desk.

Jack Sheedy / For Hearst Connecticut Media

The river’s revival also spawned the Naugatuck River Greenway, a cooperative venture among riverside communities to encourage hiking and biking along the river. “The end of the greenway is at Torrington, and it goes down to Derby,” he said. The Torrington section starts at Franklin Street and will eventually reach Bogue Road, where Litchfield will take over, he said.

The return of waterfowl is also a success, he said. “I remember having a wildlife teacher when I was in school not too long ago, like 10 years ago. And, you know, he said when he was a little boy, seeing a flock of geese was like you never see them.That was the highlight.

Brian Corringham took a break to feed Clarence and other ducks and pointed out several businesses near Franklin Plaza. “It’s good that people who come here to visit businesses know that it’s a kind of nature reserve here. Yeah, it’s not just a dirty old river. It really is a nature reserve.

Canada geese honked and a hundred ducks clucked, seemingly in agreement.

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