(City snowpile in Veteran's Park. For an indication of scale, my five year old son climbs on the opposite side of the pile in a blue coat.)
Barry Chernoff arrived for our interview at Klekolo Coffee on two wheels.
He entered the coffee house with his helmet still on, face ruddy from his motorcycle trip from Haddam on a nice, but nippy Winter day. His legs were swathed in leather chaps. Not the entrance one would expect from the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies at Wesleyan.
Behind the counter, Rick (a WESU colleague of mine, known as Psychedelic Rick), knew Chernoff's poison, and refilled his refillable traveling coffee mug.
I set up the meeting with Chernoff to discuss the Coginchaug River, which has headwaters in Guilford and flows through Durham, Middlefield and Middletown, where it empties into the Mattabessett just before that river empties into the Connecticut.
The Coginchaug is a river Chernoff is passionate about, and that's a bit of a surprise from a biologist who has spent much of his life examining fish, ecology and the evolutionary history of fish, in the tropical fresh waters of the Amazon and other parts of Central and South America, and later in Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin. For many years, Chernoff held an esteemed position as the curator of the Department of Zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago, and was responsible for building spectacular collection of tropical specimens. To read Chernoff's own account of his early collecting years, check out this Discover Magazine account. Or listen to this expedition recorded by NPR.
In fact, it's the mention of Louisiana that sets us off on a 40 minute digression about Cajun cooking, and eating in the rough in the swamps, and on the prairies of Louisiana. After trading gumbo tips, our discussion returns to the health of rivers.
Chernoff is worried about the health of the Coginchaug, and by association, the health of the wetlands where the Cocinchaug and the Mattabessett meet.
"We simply don't have many river systems intact in Connecticut," Chernoff explains. "And with the Coginchaug we have a beautiful stretch of lowland river with forest boundaries. The lower end of the river helps preserve a large bottomland meadow ecosystem.
Chernoff rattles off a long list of aquatic life he's catalogued in the wetlands, including rock bass, smallmouth bass, shiners, suckers, alewives, lampreys, eels, darters and tesselated darters.
"If you think about other Connecticut tributaries, the Farmington and the Salmon, we have developed and channelled these wetlands out of existence."
While I've known about Chernoff for years (he's a regular listener to my WWUH radio show, and a musician himself), it was on a summertime kayak tour through the floating meadows of the Mattabessett, and that I began to understand Chernoff's passion for the local ecology, and his worry that we might, yet, ruin a good thing.
On that trip, Chernoff explained about a dead spot in the Coginchaug river, where, for a stretch of several hundred yards, the bottom was coated with a thick bed of muck and sand, and now sign of aquatic life.
"You couldn't wade through it, because you'd sink up to your knee in muck, and only then would you feel the old river bottom," Chernoff explained. "And we'd catch nothing in there."
He brought his concerns to the DEP, and to the Inland Fisheries department, for which Chernoff reserves great respect.
"These are great scholars, and they know their ecosystems," Chernoff declares. "They have all the necessary academic rigor, but on top of that they have a passion for their work."
But when he returned to the dead spot in the river later in the summer, Chernoff was in for a surprise of his own.
"The system had flushed itself out," he noted humbly. "We found a bunch of insect and fish life there. The DEP guys must have thought I had no idea how to take a sample. What I think now, is that the dead spot was a remnant of an old beaver dam above the riffle that had been taken down, and the river cleaned itself out."
That's the good news.
The bad news is that Chernoff's recent examinations have found the dead spot reemerging. Chernoff believes there are a few possible causes but he hasn't been able to do the complete the studies to verify his suspicions.
"As of November, the dead spot has reappeared," he said. "The river in that area above the riffle is filled with sand again, and it occurred just after the completion of the new bridge to the CVS on Washington street was built. They built the stanchions for the bridge in the streambed, and anytime you do that, you're going to get erosion."
In addition, Chernoff thinks the city's practice of hauling snow contaminated by road sand to a parking lot in Veteran's Park adjacent to the river is causing a problem. The snow, hauled from the berm created on Main Street after plowing is trucked to the parking lot, and in snowy years, the piles are considerable. This year, the pile covers an area about half the size of a football field, and ten to twelve feet tall.
Chernoff wouldn't be concerned if the snow was pure.
"This is a snowmelt and storm runoff river system, and always has been," Chernoff said. "But that snow is filled with sand, and with salt and with a lot of other chemical stuff."
The pile melts and flows directly into the river.
"The salt increases the conductivity of the water during the milt," Chernoff explained. "It increases the number of dissolved ions, and that can harm the aquatic life there."
The city uses the park because it's convenient, open and away from neighborhoods where the late night truck traffic might cause complaints.
"If that snow was clean, you could dump it directly in the Connecticut River," Chernoff explained. "There's a flow there of 20 million gallons an hour. But even there, this contaminated snow would cause a kill off."
According to Chernoff, the Coginchaug, which for the most part is hidden from sight for most of Middletown's residents, could be natural system that's good for public recreation, something that Chernoff, and his colleague on the Jonah Center board, John Hall, have been working diligently to make happen by creating a greenway from Veteran's Park to the peninsula where the rivers meet.
"In the end, a healthy river system increases the value of each piece of property which lies on it's path," Chernoff said. "If the city is interested in making something more of Veteran's Park, they've got to find a different approach than the one we're taking."