Schooner sails to promote clean waters in Sound
On warm, late summer days, Louise Washer can smell the brine of Long Island Sound from her home on the Wilton/Norwalk line in Silvermine, and it reminds her about the interconnectedness of the watershed.
"Sometimes I forget how close we are to the Sound, but it influences everything about our environment," said Ms. Washer, who is the secretary of the Norwalk River Valley Watershed Association. "Wilton lies at the heart of watershed, and Wilton residents are the ones who hold the responsibility for protecting it."
Toward this end, the association is inviting the community to learn about Long Island Sound on a sail aboard the 80-foot, three-masted schooner, the SoundWaters, on Sunday, Sept. 23, from 1:30 to 3:30 at Stamford Harbor.
Ms. Waters said the passengers on board the 80-foot vessel will participate in an "interactive" tour that will "highlight the impact of human activities on the health of Long Island Sound," she said. "We will sample and test water quality, analyze ground water filtration, work together to raise the sails, haul the nets, and examine first-hand the rich diversity of life that exists beneath the waves."
The boat trip will also offer discussions "about different aspects of floatable debris and hypoxia with an emphasis on specific stewardship actions that individuals can take in their communities to protect species, habitats and water quality in the Sound," Ms. Waters said.
According to Wiltonian Kristen Begor, a board member of Wilton Go Green, the Norwalk River watershed encompasses portions of six Connecticut towns: Wilton, New Canaan, Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield and Weston. "The Norwalk River watershed is approximately 40,000 acres or 64.1 square miles, and is populated by more than 66,000 people," she said. "The watershed is defined by three main drainages — the Norwalk River, Comstock Brook and the Silvermine River — all of which make their way into Long Island Sound. Hence, the Norwalk River is what connects all of these seven towns to Long Island Sound and causes each of these seven towns to have direct impact on the Sound."
To understand this "connectiveness," Ms. Begor said, "all you have to do is to spend some time at the mouth of the Norwalk River at Norwalk Harbor and observe the trash that finds its way to the Sound day after day. We all need to better understand the concept that what we do upstream has direct impact on those who live downstream of us. The lawn care products we use in our yards, the prescription drugs we flush down our toilets, the oil and gasoline that drips from our cars, and the salt we spread on our roadways — all this ends up washing into our rivers and then into Long Island Sound."
"We need to be smarter about what we do in our own space as it has huge implications in the greater space — our environment," she said.
Simply put, according to Wiltonian Elizabeth Craig, who is planning to do the sail onboard the SoundWaters, it is important to learn about Wilton's stewardship of the Norwalk River because "if it goes on the ground, it goes in the Sound."
For example, she said, "Stormwater run-off is heavier these days with the increased development seen in Fairfield County. This storm water run-off can contain excess fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides from both residential and agricultural uses, road salts, heavy metals, grease and other toxic chemicals."
Along with the educational aspect of the sail, Ms. Craig said she "is planning to have fun on the schooner and enjoy the beauty of Long Island Sound. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Conservation (DEEP) considers Long Island Sound to be the largest and most important resource in the state. We may not think much about the Sound and take its recreational opportunities for granted, with its fishing, boating and swimming, but we should be aware of our impact on the Sound as residents upstream."
A healthy Sound "that we can enjoy and feel comfortable swimming in, and boating on, is a goal worth striving for and is in addition an economically sound goal," she said. "The fishing industry and tourists visiting Long Island Sound generate millions of dollars for the Connecticut economy each year."
Richard Harris, harbor director at Earthplace in Westport said stewardship of the watershed also includes ending "the thoughtless disposal of leaves and yard waste, a common practice where the waste is carried by the river to the Norwalk Harbor where it sinks and forms a black smelly mass of slowly decaying organic matter on the bottom. This has now covered much of the harbor bottom, making it very difficult for bottom fish to spawn such as the winter flounder."
Mr. Harris said the problem is not getting better. "There is little we can see in the way of improvement in 13 years of monitoring the Norwalk River. While people talk about 'green,' many follow the same well-worn path used by their parents and grandparents and view the rivers as a free, endless conduits for disposal of trash from their properties. Nature can't absorb all this waste and the results are showing downstream. The biggest challenge we all face is to establish a new set of ethics about the river and how we manage its ecology. This has proven to be a tall order."
According to David Park, author of Kayaking in and Around the Norwalk Islands, Wilton's impact on the watershed also directly affects the diverse wildlife in the Sound. This includes a "variety of nesting birds along the coast and Norwalk Islands that are dependent on fish and vegetation to survive. We have a variety of egrets, herons, terns, osprey and other migratory birds. We are also visited by harbor seals during the winter that swim down from Maine and Canada," he said.
Dianne Selditch, coastal center director of Soundwaters, an educational non-profit organization aimed at protecting Long Island Sound, said SoundWaters has offered public sails for nearly 20 years, mostly from "our home port in Stamford, but this is the first public engagement sail that focuses specifically on water quality, floatable debris and marine animals. This year, with support from the Long Island Sound Study, we're able to travel further east on Long Island Sound in both New York and Connecticut, to introduce more adults and children to the animals of the Sound and to encourage our participants to take an active role in taking action to protect Long Island Sound animals and habitats," she said. "We definitely plan on continuing these sails next season.
What exactly is a Chesapeake Bay Sharpie Schooner?
"A Sharpie Schooner is a flat-bottomed boat that was developed in the U.S. during the 19th Century to replace the log canoe," she said. "Large sharpies such as ours are gaff-rigged — the top of the sail is at an angle. They handled particularly well for the oyster industry in Long Island Sound, especially around New Haven Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay, where the numerous harbors and inlets are shallow."
Where will the tour go?
"The schooner will sail out of the harbor and into Long Island Sound. After that, we leave it up to the wind, the weather, and the whim of the captain," she said.
To register, visit upcoming events at norwalkriver.org, or call 877-NRWA-INFO.