Fly fishing on the Willimantic River, a segment of which has been designated as a National Recreation Trail by the National Parks Service. Photo source: Willimantic River Alliance
In the 1960s, the Willimantic River was what some described as a “sewer,” polluted by chemicals from various local businesses.
How times have changed.
The watershed has been cleaned up substantially over the past four decades, an achievement celebrated at the 12th annual “floating workshop,” sponsored by the Thames River Partnership, at the Eagleville fire station in Mansfield Friday afternoon (June 22).
“We went from an open sewer to a National Recreation Trail in 40 years,” said Watershed Conservation Coordinator at the Eastern Conservation Commission District, Jean Pillo.
“I think that’s an awesome story to tell,” Pillo said.
Beginning in Stafford Springs and running through the University of Connecticut, the river spans 25 miles, ending in Willimantic.
With the support of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), the Willimantic River Alliance and the Last Green Valley (LGV), the National Parks Service recently designated the 21-mile Willimantic River Water Trail as a National Recreation Trail.
The Willimantic River Alliance is a group dedicated to conserving the Willimantic River. The LGV is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve the land, cultural and water resources of 35 towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
LGV Deputy Executive Director Lois Bruinooge presented the National Parks Service certificate to a group of individuals involved with the Willimantic River cleanup and the conservation of local watersheds.
“This wouldn’t have happened without so many people,” she said. “It’s a good recognition and we have a lot more work to do.”
The event was also a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Federal Clean Water Act and the 45th anniversary of the Connecticut Clean Water Act.
Adopted in 1972, the federal legislation sets regulations regarding pollution of water sources in an attempt to make them safe for fishing and swimming, as well as other recreational opportunities.
The state legislation, passed in 1967, has a similar purpose.
Those organizing the event saw the Willimantic River as a “success story” of this legislation.
“Willimantic went through a very difficult period in the 1960s,” said Hugo Thomas, a former DEEP employee.
In a press release on the LGV web site, Willimantic River Alliance Vice President Meg Reich also expressed her excitement about the award.
“Designation of the Willimantic River gives it national recognition as a healthy and accessible river for all to enjoy,” she said. “This honor acknowledges all the work that has gone into improving water quality over the last 40 years, from a river that was once heavily polluted to a nationally recognized recreational asset.”
Chris Bellucci, a Supervising Environmental Analyst for DEEP, spoke about the work his department has done to clean up the Willimantic River.
DEEP officials regularly take samples of the watersheds and analyze water quality by reviewing plant life and animals. “Needless to say, we spent quite a few years out there collecting information,” said Bellucci.
The primary goal of the tests was to remediate pollution caused by the mills when they were in active use. “That was one of the huge stressors for this area,” said Bellucci.
Earlier in the day, DEEP Watershed Manager Eric Thomas led a tour of UConn, during which he pointed out storm water management techniques being used by the university.
Key spots on the tour were the Trachten-Zachs Hillel House and Towers dormitories. Storm water drainage at the university runs into either the Fenton River or the Eagleville Brook, a tributary of the Willimantic River.
The brook is classified by the DEEP as a “Class A” stream, meaning it is designated for various uses, such as drinking water, fishing and recreational use.
The water quality is deemed good for the most part, but there is still work to be done.
Under the Federal Clean Water Act, DEEP officials have identified “total maximum daily loads,” or TMDL, for the Willimantic River. This is a plan that focuses on addressing storm water impacts in the Eagleville Brook watershed, which have affected aquatic life.
Thomas referred to it as a “pollution management budget.”
UConn and Mansfield staff, Willimantic River Alliance members, local businesses and residents living within the watershed are involved in implementing these practices.
Posted June 24, 2012 as edited and added to by HTNP.com Editor Brenda Sullivan
NPS announces designation of 54 new National Recreation Trails http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/AMERICAS-GREAT-OUTDOORS-Salazar-Jarvis-Announce-Designation-of-54-New-National-Recreation-Trails.cfm
Willimantic River Alliance http://www.willimanticriver.org
Connecticut Water Trails Association http://connecticutwatertrails.com/CWTA%20-%20Connecticut%20Rivers%20-%20Willimantic%20River.htm
Eastern Conservation Commission District http://www.conservect.org/Default.aspx?alias=www.conservect.org/eastern
Connecticut Clean Water Act http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?a=2719&q=325578&depNav_GID=1654
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