A community helps its river heal
June is National Rivers Month, and today we’re celebrating with a post from guest blogger Anna Marshall of Save the Sound, who shares the story of a community who came to the aid of its river and reaped big benefits.
Standing on the banks of a restored West River, it is hard to imagine that a little over a year ago this spot held stagnant water just upstream of a deteriorating dam. Today, the 14-acre Pond Lily Nature Preserve is animated by people enjoying the trails, fish, birds, and other wildlife at this oasis of forest, river, and wetland in urban New Haven. Many are the same neighbors who helped bring about this remarkable transformation.
Over the past year, Save the Sound removed four derelict dams, including Pond Lily, as part of our ongoing efforts to improve the health of Connecticut’s rivers and help local communities. In addition to reducing the risk of flooding, healthy, free-flowing river systems provide clean water and recreation opportunities. The Pond Lily Dam project was supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy resilience projects.
While reconnecting the river to its floodplain, the project brought local residents together to care for their river. Community efforts led by Save the Sound to remove invasive vegetation and plant native perennials have shown success less than a year after dam removal, with abundant native plant cover across the property, which is managed by the New Haven Land Trust.
“Save the Sound has helped coordinate hundreds of volunteers on multiple occasions to replant areas exposed by the receding water with native species,” says Justin Elicker, president of the New Haven Land Trust.
To bolster plant diversity and density even more, Save the Sound is working with participants in the G.R.O.W.E.R.S. program, a New Haven-based horticultural life skills program for adults with developmental and physical disabilities. Participants are growing native perennials from seeds collected by the New England Wildflower Society at Pond Lily Nature Preserve and other preserves across Connecticut.
Plants and people are not the only populations benefiting from a free-flowing West River. Removing the dam restored 2.6 miles of river habitat for migratory fish populations. Species such as alewives and river herring can now swim between Long Island Sound and freshwater habitat in the West River to spawn.
Steve Gephard, senior fisheries biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, reported recently that fish monitoring efforts this spring “have documented several alewives in the West River upstream of the former Pond Lily Dam. This demonstrates that the restored channel is ‘fish passable.’”
Each time we return to the preserve, we gain a greater understanding of how the river and its floodplains are responding to restoration. Over the next several years, Save the Sound will monitor the restoration success of native fish and vegetation, as well as natural adjustments of the river channel. We’ll use the information to make decisions about future plantings and caring for this incredible riverside habitat.
After years of habitat fragmentation caused by the dam, the river still needs help from the community to heal. We’ll keep an eye on the West River as its story unfolds and continue to engage area residents as stewards of the Pond Lily Nature Preserve. A community in sync with its river is a beautiful thing.
Click here to watch a short video about the Pond Lily dam removal. To learn more about Save the Sound’s monitoring efforts at Pond Lily or to volunteer as a river steward, email firstname.lastname@example.org.