The Mill River Revival

It may be telling that Connecticut’s 17-mile long Mill River begins next to a cemetery. Once a vigorous water flow that sustained large shoals of fish and flocks of songbirds, today the Mill River has fallen to its knees. Upper segments of the river are dry and muddy, urban segments brim with discarded trash, and one segment has been transformed into a bulkhead-lined corridor. Flanked by Route 10 and smothered by elevated highways, the river wheezes. Yet hopeful environmentalists want to bring the river back to life.

Joy VanderLek, President of the Cheshire Land Trust, only recently discovered that the Mill River was once heavy-flowing and full of life. She was familiar with the river because it wraps around the boundary of Fresh Meadows, a 35-acre wildlife sanctuary managed by the Cheshire Land Trust. The stream was so small and dry, however, that VanderLek didn’t give a thought as to its health. “We never paid it any attention!” she laughs. “It wasn’t a ‘river’ river.”

In 2017, environmental non-profit Save the Sound reached out to VanderLek about conducting a water quality study in the part of the Mill River that bordered Fresh Meadows. Curious about Save the Sound’s interest in the stream, VanderLek dug up the Mill River’s history. “Oh my gosh, this used to be a huge river!” she imitates herself exclaiming as she came upon old photographs. “Oh my god! We’re the source up here in Cheshire!” VanderLek couldn’t believe that the Mill River, which flows through East Rock and funnels Lake Whitney, was a source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands. The frail trickle of water along Fresh Meadows was not some little stream, but the last breath of a dying river. With that, VanderLek joined the healing effort.

For millennia before European settlement, the Algonquian-speaking Quinnipiac people harvested oysters, clams, and fish from the many rivers of Southwest Connecticut. After the arrival of English colonists and until the turn of the 19th century, the Mill River was used for commercial purposes, dotted by watermills and gliding boats. Salt marshes brimmed with cordgrass alongside floodplain forests of sycamores, elms, and cottonwoods. The Industrial Revolution picking up speed, Eli Whitney erected a gun factory along the river in 1798. With that, the floodgates of industry opened, and the riverbanks were paved over by factories and power plants. Businesses aggregated around the river because it was the best place to dispose of waste. “We just didn’t think twice about what we put in rivers,” says Anthony Allen, the Ecological Communications Specialist at Save the Sound. “It was out of sight, out of mind.”

Waste disposal into the Mill River was not the only problem brought about by heavy industry. Its arrival also disrupted natural processes, namely hydrological flow. The land area that surrounds a river is called its “watershed,” also known as a “drainage basin.” After rain falls, it percolates into the soil where natural bacteria sieves toxins and pollutants out of the rainwater. The purified water then slowly drains through the ground, finding its way into the nearest stream or river. (Some rainfall also ends up in underground reservoirs called aquifers.) A healthy watershed with thriving plant cover keeps the river clean and continuously replenished, allowing the cycle of evaporation, precipitation, and drainage to repeat itself.

The Mill River’s 38 square-mile watershed, once salty marshlands and sycamores, is now pavement and buildings. Rainfall that patters onto asphalt sweeps up sediment and trash from the floor, then immediately runs off into the river through drains and pipes. Polluted water gets pushed into the river at very fast rates, and whenever it rains hard, the Mill River floods. Even when the river seems calm, it is still being infiltrated by fecal coliform bacteria, excess phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers, and surface toxins from roads. “It’s about restoring a water cycle that we’ve completely monopolized by paving over,” says Nicole Davis, Watershed Coordinator at Save the Sound. “At the moment, it’s not quite a cycle, but more like an oval wheel.”

Approved by the state in 2018, the Mill River Watershed Plan may mark the beginning of the river’s rehabilitation. When a group of New Haven activists started working on a trail along the Mill River, Save the Sound decided to get involved in coordinating an effort that would bring together every single stakeholder with the power to negatively and positively affect the river. “We saw the opportunity to do a Watershed Plan that looked at the river more holistically than just the section in New Haven,” says Davis.

Funded by the State Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA, the Watershed Plan brings together roughly 200 stakeholders, from businesses along the river to concerned private individuals. Part of the plan centers around education—creating marked trails along the river or teaching people to properly fertilize their lawns. Another part involves building green infrastructure, such as a wetland in Hamden or a small parklet in New Haven to absorb stormwater and relieve the Mill River’s flooding.

Because nature is blind to the pencil-drawn boundaries between properties, the momentum around saving the Mill River has brought neighbors together. Across the Mill River from Fresh Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary lies Elim Park, a Baptist retirement home. Elim Park and the Cheshire Land Trust have been working closely to restore the stream between their lands. “They are a really important part of the Watershed Plan,” says Davis, “because they are in the headwaters, right where the river starts.” 

Though the Cheshire Land Trust and Elim Park regularly undertake cleanups and stormwater management, their segment of the river is still in bad shape. “This particular segment is identified in the Plan as one of the worst sections,” says Barry Tomlinson, Elim Park’s Director of Development. The Mill River begins near the Cheshire Hill Cemetery as a clear stream full of fish and critters, then gets hidden behind homes and businesses. By the time it reaches Elim Park and Fresh Meadows, the river mysteriously dries up and its water quality drops. “After you get past Fresh Meadows, it does take up again in amount of water, volume, and velocity, so there’s something weird somewhere,” explains VanderLek. “That’s one of the puzzles we’re trying to figure out.”

Elim Park and the Land Trust are aware that land health on one side of the river is impossible without equal commitment on the other side. The two organizations have informally helped each other with habitat restorations in Fresh Meadows and outdoor space renovations in Elim Park. Now, they’ve identified culverts that go right from Route 10 into the stream channel, a pollution source that they want to eliminate. They also hope to educate neighbors about avoiding waste dumping and refraining from using chemical fertilizers on their river-adjacent lawns. 

Framed by a thick blanket of glimmering snow on both riverbanks, Elim Park’s view of the Mill River in January looks like a landscape painting. The sound of the flowing stream is a reminder of the river’s persistence against the odds. It’s easy to imagine the charm of warmer months, when bees, finches, and butterflies swoop down to greet orange-bodied wood turtles, an endangered species that has managed to hold its ground. Tomlinson points to a small pipe in the riverbank spurting fluid directly into the river. “This water is runoff from Elim, and it’s not filtered right now.” Soon, a catch basin will be built below the pipe to filter the sediment out from the water flow.

When it rains, water that glides off Elim Park’s parking lot flows through drainage pipes into a 3-foot deep depression area adjacent to the river called a “bioretention basin.” In theory, the grimy water should marinate for a day or two in the big hole before infiltrating the soil and naturally rejoining the groundwater or the river. A bioretention area reduces flooding by relieving the high inflows that take place during storms. Its soil also breaks down pollutants before they can reach larger bodies of water. Once a year, these natural treatment areas must be excavated to be cleared of road sand, sediment, and litter. Elim Park’s bioretention area, however, is not functioning properly at the moment. Unmaintained, it is clogged by invasive species like the stubborn Japanese Mugwort. “These invasive plants don’t allow the infiltration process,” explains Tomlinson. 

With support from Save the Sound and hired Wetland engineers, Elim Park will remove the invasive species impeding the bioretention area’s healthy functioning. “During a rainstorm like what we had on Sunday [January 26th],” says Ron Walters, President of the Watershed Association, “they probably filled up quickly and discharged right into the Mill River.” Slow infiltration is key, and Elim Park’s projected installation of water-tolerant native plants will also help the obstructed bioretention area breathe again.

Without a Watershed Plan, addressing the Mill River’s impairments would fall back on municipalities. Each municipality would individually take care of cleaning up its own segment—a somewhat paradoxical effort, since the river is constantly flowing and moving as one. “We’re a lot less effective when we work in that way,” says Allen. “Ecosystems don’t pay attention to our political lives.” Instead of looking at the river through the lens of municipalities, a Watershed Plan strictly relies on how nature is organized, acknowledging that people may nominally live in Cheshire or Hamden, but that they also live in a watershed.

Because the Mill River is besieged by construction and development, looking at it through ecosystem goggles is not necessarily intuitive. “Access is very tough,” says VanderLek. “It’s often tucked behind businesses and their waste bins.” Increased education about the river’s course and new hiking trails, she believes, will push people to take ownership of the river and want to protect it. Davis also believes that increasing the river’s visibility will be crucial. “If you know there is water but you don’t think of it as anything,” she says, “you won’t necessarily have a connection with it.” Technical intervention matters, but by promoting the neglected Mill River through local education campaigns, the Watershed Plan also aims to encourage connection with nature.

Rising temperatures add urgency to the task of restoring the Mill River. In 2016, the EPA warned that Connecticut’s average temperature rose by two to three degrees Fahrenheit in the last century, an increase which has majorly altered our rain and storm patterns. Since 1958, rain from “extremely heavy storms” has increased by 70% in the American Northeast, and the frequency of heavy downpours will keep rising. Excess water slamming down onto Connecticut gathers grime, trash, and sediment before entering rivers. It also makes rivers prone to flash floods, which spill into urban communities. Combined sewer systems can no longer handle the mounting pressure of stormwater, and rivers are dealing with the fallout.

For Walters, the tide is heading in the right direction. When he started working on water issues 25 years ago, Walters recalls that “stormwater management” was not even a phrase in circulation. The mentality of the time was: “Get the water off the property as quick as you can, and discharge it directly into the river,” he says. Now, there isn’t a site plan approved that doesn’t have a stormwater treatment system, whether a rooftop infiltration area or a ground-level rain garden. The State Aquifer Protection Regulations approved in the 1990s have also prohibited new high-risk commercial uses in the watershed area. Though existing businesses are grandfathered in, no new high-polluters such as gas stations or dry cleaners can be opened alongside the river.

Davis, too, is optimistic. “I think this is fixable,” she says. “Connecticut and the Northeast are actually lucky in the fact that we are a water-rich area, because many areas do suffer from drought.” Because the northeast’s water environment is stable, its rivers are capable of bouncing back as healthy organs of their ecosystems. Until then, the Watershed Plan will continue to unite separate communities around a shared natural resource. “It’s supposed to be a living document,” says Davis, “It’s now up to stakeholders and people interested in the river to take the plan and use it as a tool.” The architects of the Plan hope that it will induce neighbors to shake hands and strangers to meet on riverside hiking trails. Perhaps, in a moment of mutual contemplation, they will notice that the birds have already come back.

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