Norwalk River recognized for improved water quality

A segment of the Norwalk River that runs through Ridgefield, near Stonehenge Road, has been named one of two sections responsible for improvements in water quality, and subsequently helping remove the 25-mile river from the state’s list of impaired waters.

For over half a century, pollutants from residential and commercial sources damaged the watershed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which distinguished the river last month as an example of one of four “Waterbodies Improved” in the country.

The EPA recognized the Norwalk River Watershed Initiative (NRWI), which has launched dozens of volunteer watershed-planning organizations in Fairfield County since 1998, for its “activities that have catalyzed changes in septic system maintenance, lawn care, pet waste, and municipal stormwater management requirements.”

“These activities have reduced bacteria levels and improved water quality,” the EPA said on its website. “As a result, the two river segments were removed from Connecticut’s CWA section 303(d) list of impaired waters in 2012.”

The state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) has been working with the EPA and the NRWI for the last 16 years, collecting data from the river’s two monitoring sites in Ridgefield, near Stonehenge Road, and in Wilton, near Old Mill Road.

Data collected from 1998 to 2011 showed that the water quality standard did not meet recreation use due to high volumes of Escherichia coli, or “E. coli.”

The Stonehenge Road site had average E. coli levels as high as 540 colonies per 100 milliliters in 2004, far exceeding the state’s maximum for recreation use — 126 colonies per 100 ml.

In 2012, the Stonehenge segment of the river showed average E. coli levels of 107 colonies per 100 ml (107col/100ml).

The EPA said pollution sources include permitted municipal wastewater and storm water discharges, runoff from impervious surfaces, failing septic systems, pet and domestic animal waste, and wildlife.

“Some areas of the river are affected by excess nutrients and reduced dissolved oxygen, leading to low aquatic species diversity,” the EPA said.

Pat Sesto, Wilton’s director of environmental affairs and former member of Ridgefield’s conservation commission, has been working with the NRWI to promote environmental education.

She heard the EPA’s announcement last week and credited the watershed improvements to “subtle change in individual behavior.”

“This is an ongoing study,” she said. “For 16 years, we’ve plotted along — year in, year out — taking measurements and updating our action plans.

“We can measure the number of pollutants and the bacteria levels, but it’s hard to quantify the change in behavior,” she said. “Individuals have to recognize that their behavior, multiplied by thousands, has had a negative effect over the years.”

“Public education has proved to be our most valuable asset — people changing their everyday behavior has made a difference.”

Ms. Sesto added that there are 27 monitoring sites, two of which are in Ridgefield — one on Stonehenge Road and the other near the town’s transfer station.

“Ridgefield is unique in the fact it has two treatment plants,” she said. “Some Ridgefielders are on the Titicus watershed and may not find this all that important, but we’re all on a watershed, so this matters to everyone.

“Everything drains out eventually, so nobody should ever say, ‘I’m not in the watershed, this doesn’t affect me,’” she added. “It affects all of us.”

She recognized the “hard work and effort” of towns such Lewisboro, Weston, and Redding in helping reduce the runoff.

The 64-mile watershed is in southwestern Connecticut, but empties into Long Island Sound. A small portion of the watershed drains into Lewisboro and other parts of southeastern New York.

Ms. Sesto called the EPA’s results “a great achievement,” but remains set on improving the watershed further in years to come.

“The surrounding communities have to stay motivated now,” she said. “It’s hard to stay motivated when the results aren’t there, but here we are 15 years later and there are results that say we’ve made a difference.

“We have to continue with this initiative and keep making a difference,” she said. “It happens by listening, staying educated on the issue and making changes.”



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