Wilton keeps waiting for spring to stick around long-term. If you’re starting to feel like you have an overdue case of spring fever, Wilton’s open spaces might be top of mind these days.

Our open spaces received a lot of attention in town meetings over the winter, particularly around improvement and redevelopment. In fact, improving the health of the Norwalk River and its recreational use through collaboration with the Mianus Chapter of Trout Unlimited was included among First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice‘s priorities for 2019.

Since 1973, Trout Unlimited has been restoring local rivers and improving habitat for trout and other aquatic life. In recent years, work has focused on the Norwalk River, where the chapter has protected a spawning wild brown trout population.

“This was one of our proudest accomplishments,” said Jeff Yates, director of volunteer operations at Trout Unlimited. “Thanks to efforts around improving the habitat, wild brown trout number more than doubled in one year.”

Work continues around improving water quality and habitat for trout, insects, and other Norwalk River dwellers, and Trout Unlimited believes in a four-pronged approach:  Protect, Reconnect, Restore, and Sustain.

One of the simplest ways to protect our water is to protect the land around it from development and Trout Unlimited supports open space conservation. More open land means more cleaner water.

The reconnect part of the equation is about helping the river return to moving material the way it’s supposed to. The recent removal of the Cannondale Dam has helped open up the river again to migratory fish. Plans to take down the Dana Dam at Merwin Meadows will further enable fish to move up and downstream.

Restoring the Schenck’s Island Stretch of Norwalk River

The main goal of Trout Unlimited’s most current effort, the Schenck’s Island Norwalk River Restoration Project, is to restore and enhance the fish habitat within a half mile reach of the Norwalk River located within the Schenck’s Island public recreation area. Trout Unlimited will be undertaking about two weeks worth of significant construction work, followed by replanting and rebuilding, all along the waterway through Wilton Center.

The project will be focused on improving the habitat diversity and conditions for trout as well as other aquatic species in the Norwalk River–things currently facing serious threats and challenges, both natural and man-made.

Much of the habitat degradation within this stretch has resulted from urban encroachment as well as changing precipitation events due to climate change. “Rains are much more ferocious than they used to be,” explains Yates. “Today it’s common to get 3-4 inches of rain during what we call rain events, and that leads to flash flooding, which eventually changes the structure of the river.”

In the summer months, the river becomes extremely low–a result of development and the reduction of groundwater reserves–making it difficult for wild trout to survive. But some still do. With less water going into the ground and getting cleaned and then slowly making its way to river, hot, dirty stormwater is going straight into the river, wreaking havoc on the river’s habitat.

Another threat facing the Norwalk River is pollution. In recent years, water quality testing has shown the Norwalk to have high levels of bacteria pollutants from failing septic systems and other sources, and also high levels of fertilizers and other chemicals.

Of course, human interaction often presents the largest threat to the banks and water habitats of the river. Trout Unlimited is working to rebuild and shore up several access points, stabilizing these spots throughout the river’s reach to benefit public safety and minimize the impact to the river banks and riparian vegetation. This particular project will compliment a large-scale project to improve the ecosystem of Schenck’s Island while providing river access to the public within the town of Wilton.

Sixteen restoration sites along the river have been identified to improve fish and invertebrate habitat, facilitate sediment transport, and reduce sediment input. Following the completion of the project, over 2.7 acres of stream bed and banks will have been stabilized and enhanced.

“Admittedly, the work will look intrusive, but the net positive at the end of the day is huge,” says Yates. “Residents will see what looks like a typical construction site, with excavators digging holes. We’ll be adding about 200 boulders and putting in structures, including tree trunks with big root wads.”

The boulders will help improve steam bed stability, while the root wads provide support for bank revegetation by collecting sediment and debris that will improve the riverbank structure over time.

River restoration projects typically take place in the late summer to avoid disrupting fish spawning and juvenile rearing, and, to abide by state rules which direct that projects must be completed between July 15 and October 1.

According to Yates, the objective of the 10-14 days of construction followed by careful, thoughtful planting, is to build a half mile of “excellent habitat that models what the river should look like.”

And that’s where the final piece–sustain–comes into play.

“Equally important to the work we’re doing, is building a community around the river, a community that cares about the river. We need to educate our children about how to keep our water clean; we need that next generation to care,” says Yates.

He continues, “The Norwalk River is really a barometer for the health of the entire ecosystem in Wilton and throughout the larger seven town watershed. The health of the river reflects the health of our community in so many ways, from the drinking water we draw from our wells, to the chemicals we use on our lawns and gardens. Working to keep the Norwalk River clean and cold, means that we are also taking care of the environment around it, improving our quality-of-life as residents, and for our children and future generations to come.”
For more information on the Mianus Chapter of Trout Unlimited, please visit the website.  This Saturday, May 11th the chapter is holding a free, fun, Family Fishing Clinic & Kids Trout Stocking from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Merwin Meadows Park in Wilton. For more information and to register, please sign up here.