Holly Drinkuth and Sally Harold — March 20. 2014

Holly Drinkuth, Director of Outreach and Watershed Programs for the Nature Conservancy in Connecticut, and Sally Harold, Director of Migratory Fish Projects with the Connecticut Chapter spoke on the Nature Conservancy’s activities in Connecticut and projects they are involved with. Ms. Drinkuth leads water quality restoration strategies in coastal Connecticut watersheds and Ms. Harold works on a project to protect fish that migrate between fresh and salt water, among other activities.

The Nature Conservancy, Ms. Drinkuth commented, is the largest private conservation organization in the world, active in thirty countries and most states in the United States. She then focused on her area of activity. Roughly $9 billion is spent each year on activities in Long Island Sound.  21 million people live within 50 miles of the Sound and many depend on the Sound for services and resources. Like many water areas the Sound suffers from “ocean sprawl,” as it is subject to an increasing array of uses that threaten the habitat of much that lies below its surface. These uses come from an array of sources and it is difficult to co-ordinate activities so that the needs of plant and animal life are properly considered. Ms. Drinkuth gave the example of a proposed wind farm, the environmental risks, including the effect of a transmission cable laid across the Sound Floor, of which had not been adequately considered.

Another issue for the Sound is the increased frequency of violent storms, and the effect they have on shores, estuaries and sandbars that protect the shore. In addition, the Sound is part of a large and fragmented landscape.  As an example, Irene dumped huge amounts of water in Vermont, causing massive erosion of streambeds and the dumping of huge quantities of stream detritus out into the Sound. We had “Vermont in the Sound.” It is a complex, fragile and changing environment.

Ms. Harold commented that the acquisition of the Lucius Pond Ordway/Devil’s Den Preserve, created by the late Catherine Ordway through a series of donations from 1966 through 1968, and, at 1,756 acres, the Conservancy’s largest preserve in Connecticut, was an early effort of the Connecticut Chapter. They do not look at the Preserve simply in isolation but as part of a large forested area, including land held by Aquarian Water Company, and beyond to the entire Saugatuck River Watershed. One must look at the entire system from small stream headlands to wetlands to the Saugatuck River to the shore. Led by the Nature Conservancy, the Saugatuck River Watershed River Partnership was established in 2006 with eleven communities to recognize the need for regional planning to protect a healthy watershed.

They found that land conservation projects had been largely successful, but they needed to work on the water system and, in particular the 110 private and municipal dams many of which impede fish migration routes, particularly for fish that lay eggs in freshwater and migrate to salt water. Also, ponds behind dams warm and decrease trout populations. They have worked on dam removal and creation of fishways around dams to allow passage of fish. As an example, two dams were removed in the Newman-Poses Preserve. The issue is not just local but extends to Connecticut and much of northeast waterways.  There have been drastic reductions in the numbers of fish that pass through some waterways and a few stories of successful programs to boost fish migration. Efforts also need to extend to saltwater areas in order to reduce unnecessary loss of fish populations.

Ms. Drinkuth finished by discussing Long Island estuaries, where fresh water meets salt water and creates areas amazingly rich in plant and animal life. Our estuaries are at risk. Over-use of fertilizers and resulting nitrogen pollution cause water oxygen levels to plummet so that estuaries no longer support life. Water that flows down from Canada, Vermont and New Hampshire picks up pollutants from sewage systems and fertilizer runoffs from farms and deposits them along the coast. We run the risk of losing our estuaries and must work with communities to counter the poisoning of our waterways.

In the Q and A, Ms. Drinkuth and Ms. Harold made the following points:

We have seen declines in the population of much plant and fish life along our rivers, estuaries and the Sound – lobsters, salmon, eels, sea grasses, certain frogs, shad and other fish. The causes are varied and many. Eels are interesting because all eels on the east coast migrate to the same area of the Sargasso Sea and return to local rivers.  It would be easy to disrupt that pattern. We have to deal with each issue as it comes. As one example, a shipping lane was rerouted in order to not pass through a whale breeding area.

We do not have the best information in order to determine how great the decline in fish population has been in the Saugatuck River, but we are trying to keep count.