Thursday morning, May 5, Congressman Jim Himes joined First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice as well as representatives from Save the Sound and the Mianus Chapter of Trout Unlimited to announce $475,000 in new federal funding to facilitate the removal of the Dana Dam, located at Merwin Meadows in Wilton.

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The project has been in the works since 2018, and environmental groups have been advocating for the dams removal even long before that.

Removing the dam can reverse decades of ecological damage and enable cleaning of sediment and sludge from river bottoms, restoring the river’s original watercourse. It will also create a 20-mile stretch of uninterrupted migratory corridor for native species and improve other aspects of the riverbank habitat.

According to Save the Sound’s president Curt Johnson, native fish like brook trout and river herring that once used the river as breeding grounds and whose numbers have dwindled, will now return, repopulating the river all the way to the Long Island Sound.

As a result, the food chain will be strengthened, helping species from river otters to ospreys as well as occassional whales now seen more frequently in Long Island Sound.

Removing the dam will also help reduce river flooding, something Wilton has seen more of, especially as the threat of climate change grows. And with climate change in mind, getting this part of the river moving will lower the water temperature, making the river hospitable once again to native species.

Removing the dam will come at a cost of $3.6 million, much of which Save the Sound has raised through state funding, foundation grants and private donations. But a major chunk of the funding only happened recently when Himes secured $475,000 for the project through the congressional earmark process — a process that once carried a major stigma in Washington.

“I’m supposed to say ‘community project,’ but… an earmark is the ability of a member of Congress or Senator to say, ‘I live in this community and I know better than perhaps people who are working in Washington, what the really worthy projects are.’ Under [CT Congresswoman] Rosa Delauro, the chair of the Appropriations Committee, earmarks have now been made totally transparent, meaning any earmark I request needs to be put up on my website. I need to represent that I have no financial interest or other personal interest in the project. And this is the result — we’re going to get this dam removed and the ecosystem restored much more rapidly than if we had to go through the traditional bureaucratic process of applying for traditional grants,” Himes said.

He added that part of his motivation in securing funding was that the project would have an impact beyond just Wilton.

“This dam will actually really help the environmental balance in the Long Island Sound. So it has regional effects… So I’m really delighted.”

Vanderslice was grateful for Himes’ efforts, knowing how important environmental stewardship is to Wilton residents. She said that after the schools and the community’s affordability versus neighboring towns, residents always point to the natural environment as a reason for why they moved to Wilton.

“The Norwalk river is key to that natural environment. What’s being done here with this project will improve this river far beyond all of our lives. It’s for generations to come. And so we really thank you Congressman Himes,” she said.

In addition to support from the municipal, state and federal governments, Save the Sound and Trout Unlimited have  collaborated with other organization including the Norwalk River Watershed Association, the Pollinator Pathway, the Wilton Land Conservation Trust,

“All of these key community partners working together is what’s truly made this project happen,” said Gerald Berrafati, the president of the Mianus Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “As somebody who’s lived here in Walton my entire life, growing up fishing and hiking along the trails here and in and around the river, my entire life I’ve heard that one day the dam might come out. And to be here today, talking about this is truly unbelievable. It’s probably one of the biggest things that you can do for this river and keeping wild and native fish of all kinds in this river for future generations to enjoy.”

The main part of demolition and river work is set to start this summer, as soon as permits are finalized with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Save the Sound is hoping local residents will contribute toward the last $15,000 that still needs to be raised to get the project over the finish line.

Vanderslice put the project into perspective for what it means for Wilton.

“The river has become more a part of people’s daily lives in Wilton than it was before. And this is just going to make that even better,” she said. “It’s wonderful for everybody going forward, whether you’re just sitting there on a bench, looking at it, enjoying it, or whether you’re actively participating in activities with the river. It makes a huge difference for our community.”