Norwalk River restoration work planned for August

The Mianus chapter of Trout Unlimited wants to make the Norwalk River in Wilton a Xanadu for trout and a great place people can enjoy as well.

To that end, it requested and has received the blessing of the Inland Wetlands Commission to proceed with a project that will restore and enhance fish habitat along the river in Schenck’s Island. Still needed are approvals from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Jeff Yates, of Trout Unlimited, is optimistic those approvals will be forthcoming.

Three members of the commission — Chair Liz Craig, Kathie Mandel and Claudia Avallone — joined Yates, resident Sarah Curtis and The Bulletin on a site walk on June 27, after which the commission held a public hearing. Nick Lee, who was not on the site walk, attended the public hearing along with staff from the town’s Department of Environmental Affairs. The vote to approve the site application for the project was unanimous.

The project, which has a price tag of $96,000, is being paid for by the Mianus chapter. Yates said to date, about $55,000 has been spent on engineering reports, permits, and pre-construction payments. The chapter has received grants from Patagonia in Westport, Orvis in Darien, Trout Unlimited, and some private sources.

“On the highest level, what we’re trying to do is create refuges — ideal habitat for all wildlife,” Yates said at the hearing.

He explained that because of development over the years, including the building of roads, as well as erosion from flash flooding that has become more frequent in recent years, parts of the river have become straight, wide and shallow. That is not how a healthy river should be.

“What’s really exciting is we have a chance to make the Norwalk River a fishery … it’s held onto a wild trout population but we’ll lose it if we don’t work on it,” Yates said. In addition to trout, there are eels and sculpin in the river and by next spring he expects to see shad and herring as well. The goal is to not rely on state stocking of the river.

The project

The work that will be done —excavation and positioning boulders and tree trunks in the river —will encourage it to become more narrow and curvy — Yates described it as “sinuous” — with deep pools where fish can hide and spawn. It will also improve public access areas.

The engineering work for the project was prepared by Trout Scapes of Bozeman, Mont., which will also come to do the actual excavation work that is expected to take about two weeks.

A large excavator will be brought in to dismantle a decaying dam and create 16 deep pools in the river. Such a large piece of equipment is necessary, Yates said, because sediment buildup over the years has made the riverbed like concrete.

At certain points along the river, large boulders — two to three feet in diameter and weighing hundreds of pounds — will be put in place as will large tree trunks with their “root wads” attached. The trees, Yates said, will stabilize the banks and prevent sediment from building up in the river.

“The root wads and tree trunks will change the contour of the bank and let water reach the flood plain,” Yates said.

The boulders, about 200 of them, were excavated in Wilton during a number of development and road-building projects. They have been at the transfer station for years. There are dozens of dead or dying ash trees — victims of the emerald ash borer — in Schenck’s Island that will be used as well.

“We are trying to mimic natural systems,” Yates said. “Three hundred years ago, this was all forest and trees were falling in the river all the time.” What that does, he said, is create constriction points, forcing through water which creates the deep pools. The wood from the trees provides nutrients for the river and habitat for insects the fish and other wildlife feed on. At this time, few trees are big enough or old enough to fall into the river.

After the heavy work is done, disturbed areas along the banks will be stabilized and in the fall native plantings such as willows and oaks will be put in.

Commission member Kathie Mandel asked how success would be measured. Yates said wildlife biologists will count fish before and after the project. He added the work will have minimal effect on the fish.

The work is being done in August to avoid the fall spawning season, and Environmental Affairs Director Mike Conklin said the park would likely be closed for those two weeks for safety reasons.

A larger discussion

This section of the Norwalk River is only one of several areas Trout Unlimited would like to restore. Yates said he hopes the project will spur a larger community conversation about manmade deleterious effects on the river like pollution and stormwater runoff.

He is hopeful that the public’s concern over Aquarion’s application — now withdrawn — to extract millions of gallons of water from a Cannondale aquifer will spur such a discussion.

“The real beauty of the Schenck’s Island site is how central it is to town,” Yates told the commission. “It will be inviting to the public —to fish and recreate —this is what a river should look like.”