Monday, June 7, 2021

It Takes a Village To Care For Our River

Middletown is fortunate to be situated along the beautiful Connecticut River. Once a thriving port, the river provides opportunities for recreation, businesses and tourism, while also supporting many critters, including some on the Endangered Species list. When we’re driving alongside it, for the most part we don’t think about the river’s health, or how it contributes to our lives.

The Connecticut River watershed is 406 miles long. It courses through four states - starting in Quebec and ending in Long Island Sound.  The river encompasses 11,260 square miles, connects to 148 tributaries, and includes 38 major rivers and numerous lakes and ponds. The word "Connecticut" comes from the Mohegan word “quinetucket”, which means "beside the long, tidal river".

The river is home to abundant wildlife, including 12 different freshwater mussels (some endangered), frogs, snapping turtles, Rainbow Trout, Shad, Striped Bass, shortnose sturgeon (which can grow up to 4.5 feet long), Striped Bass, and mudpuppies (foot-long salamanders). Recreational boating, fishing, and swimming are popular in the Spring, Summer and Fall months. It is a popular spot for hikers, birders, and of course, the American Bald Eagle. 

Camping is available along much of the river for non-motorized boats in Massachusetts and northward, via the Connecticut River Paddlers' Trail. In Connecticut, sites are available at Chapman Pond, Hurd State Park, Gillette Castle, Selden Neck, and Stebbins Island, with most requiring reservations.

In 1877, European Water Chestnut, Trapa natans, was introduced and planted in a few Massachusetts ponds. By 1879, the plant escaped and began to spread, making its way down the river. Today, our river is choking with this invasive aquatic plant. Infestations of Water Chestnut impede fishing, swimming, and boating as the rosettes cover entire bodies of water. It congests streams, blocks boats, and kills fish. It proliferates on the surface of freshwater in thick layers (up to sixteen feet in extreme cases), hogs space and nutrients, and crowds out native plants that are food sources for animals. And, as water chestnuts decompose, they decrease dissolved oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive, creating localized dead zones in extreme cases.

Volunteers remove water chestnut from the Mattabesset River during a
Paddle With A Purpose event hosted by The Jonah Center and the
Connecticut River Conservancy (photo courtesy of The Jonah Center)

Unfortunately, Water Chestnut isn’t the only invasive species of concern in the CT River. Hydrilla, Hydrilla verticillata, is a relatively recent and even more worrisome invader due to the difficult management challenges it poses. It also spreads rapidly and forms dense stands that crowd out native vegetation, harm fisheries, limit recreation, impede navigation, and reduce property values. Mechanical removal is problematic due to the way it spreads via plant fragments, and by tubers and other plant parts that drop to the river bottom and remain viable in the sediment for many years. 

Hydrilla in the Connecticut River in Middletown, by the
Arrigoni Bridge (photo: Judy Preston)

Nearby river resources that are impacted severely by Hydrilla include the CT River, as well as Cromwell Meadows, a large freshwater tidal wetland at the confluence of the Coginchaug and Mattabesset rivers. Hydrilla is a major threat to the rare species, fisheries, wetlands, water birds and unusual habitat of this significant area, not to mention its recreational resources.

Hydrilla overtaking the Mattabesset River in Cromwell Meadows
(photo: Greg Bugbee, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station
Invasive Aquatic Plant Program)

Since 1952, the Connecticut River Conservancy, along with other river allies (see resources below), has been a watchdog and advocate for keeping the Connecticut River watershed healthy. Each year, they recruit hundreds of volunteers to work to keep these invasive species from spreading. Management of out-of-control infestations is costly and requires incredible coordination. Mechanical removal is an option, but is extremely expensive. And other options, like chemical treatment, have their downsides and are also very costly.

Watch video: Invading the CT River – The Spread of Hydrilla

What else can be done? Boaters inadvertently spread aquatic invasive plants when taking their boats from one river, lake or pond to another. If you are a boater, you can play a very important role in stemming the spread of these invasive plants by inspecting your boat for vegetation when you take it out of the water, and removing and disposing of any vegetation before transporting your boat.   

If you are interested in learning more about aquatic invasive plants in the Connecticut River, here are some excellent resources:

For information about volunteering and other ways you can help:
CT River Conservancy

CT Agriculture Experiment Station:

The Jonah Center for Earth & Art:

CT DEEP Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers brochure,

River and camping opportunities:
Connecticut River Paddlers Trail

This article was co-authored by several members of the Middletown Commission on Conservation and Agriculture: Judy Konopka, Kat Owens, Liz Holder and Jane Brawerman

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