The West River is running free for the first time in 250 years; that’s how Gwen MacDonald, director of habitat restoration for Connecticut Fund for the Environment framed the historic significance of the restoration of the West River flow from Konold’s Pond to Long Island Sound.
An important part of that restoration project is the breach and gradual removal of the Pond Lily dam, located just north of the Walgreens Plaza. The dam had created a pond with extensive marshland and caused the river upstream to occasionally flood residences and businesses in Woodbridge and Westville.
“Removing the dam and restoring natural river flows will allow the passage of migratory fish upstream, improve water quality and prevent a potentially catastrophic failure of an old dam that’s in very bad condition,” said Lori Benoit, fish and wildlife biologist for US Fish and Wildlife Service. Both she and Macdonald, along with local and regional officials, gathered Thursday, November 5 to celebrate the launch of the program. Among them was New Haven mayor Toni Harp and representatives of US Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy.
From Woodbridge, the members of the West River Restoration and Flood Mitigation Committee were celebrating, namely Stephanie Ciarleglio, Frank DeLeo, and Buddy DeGennaro, along with Trail Master Mike Walter. Selectman Beth Heller was present to celebrate their accomplishment. “It’s a great day,” said a beaming DeLeo, who remembers fishing in Konold’s Pond in his childhood. Deleo, along with the others on the committee, had seen homes and businesses in the lower Litchfield Turnpike area flood again and again, especially when spring snow melts and rains sent the river over its embankment. With the dam holding water back, it had nowhere to go but sideways.
For years the committee has worked to establish cooperative relationships with the other environmental organizations and seek funding for the project. Then came Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans and, a few years later, Hurricane Sandy and the realization that the health of the coastal system in general contributes to protecting human life and property. The federal government made available funds, along with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, to remove the dam and restore the Pond Lily Nature Preserve, an $800,000 project.
Woodbridge Selectman Beth Heller thanked the members of the West River Committee, and Frank DeLeo in particular for their “dogged determination” to relieve flooding in the area. She noted with delight the big rainbow that appeared for a short while above the area, just as the ceremony was about to get started.
State Rep. Pat Dillon of Westville recalled how, up until not so long ago, dams were considered an important feature of the country’s energy policy for hydropower, especially after the oil embargo of the 1980s, when Western countries realized how reliant they are on Middle Eastern oil. “This is a major paradigm change,” she said.
State Rep. Toni Walker of New Haven pointed out the benefits a restored riverfront can have for the community. “The best part is for the children,” she said. “They can walk, fish, and swim during the summer, that’s how memories are made,” she said.
So far, only the center part of the dam has been removed. The remaining parts will be gradually removed before the next fish run. The plan is to create a temporary bypass for the river, so the original channel can be restored. There will also be planting on the river banks, and possibly a hiking trail on the West Rock side of the river. “In two or three years this will be green,” said Frank DeLeo.
The dam was built in 1794 by the Sperry Family to run a grist mill; subsequent generations used the West River to run a paper mill and eventually the river supported a textile dying factory.
Even if the dam removal and the replacement of tide gates in Edgewood Park allows for a more natural flow, the river does not run free. The water levels continue to be controlled upstream by the Regional Water Authority at the Bethany reservoirs.
Pictured are: 1. Celebrating the removal of the Pond Lily Dam are, from left, Frank DeLeo, Selectman Beth Heller, Stephanie Ciarleglio and Trail Master Mike Walter. 2. The West River will be diverted above the remnant of the dam to allow the riverbed to be restored and silt removed.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent