From its source somewhere in the hills of Bethany, the West River runs through several reservoirs before arriving in the city of New Haven, where its route to the Long Island Sound is often lost amid the cityscape.

Gwen Macdonald, however, knows exactly where the river runs. She’s the director of ecological restoration for Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, a New Haven-based nonprofit with a mission to “protect and improve the land, air and water of Connecticut and Long Island Sound,” as its website states. CFE/Save the Sound’s projects include restoring coastal habitats, monitoring water quality, reducing greenhouse gases, advocating for solar power, protecting and conserving land and more.

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The West River watershed is one place to see CFE/Save the Sound’s work in action, so I tag along one morning as Macdonald is showing the ropes to newly hired ecological communications specialist Anthony Allen. We begin where the river crosses Route 1, bushwhacking through a weedy patch of land to arrive at a concrete barrier. It’s fitted with hundred-year-old tidal gates that once allowed the river water to flow south into the Sound but prevented sea water from making its way north. This helped farmers upstream and attempted (unsuccessfully) to control mosquitoes. But blocking the tidal waters had a downside. “It changed the plant community upstream, and it really had an impact on water quality, too,” Macdonald says.

In 2012, CFE/Save the Sound led the move to replace three of the 14 tide gates, which let in just enough ocean water to restore the area to the north without flooding soccer fields along the river. This morning, salt water from Long Island Sound gushes through the three newer gates with the incoming tide. Six orange ball floats are in place to “trip the gates shut” in the event of an unusually high tide, Macdonald explains.

Across Route 1 at West River Memorial Park, Macdonald points out the effects of the tidal restoration. Today, in the restored marshland, you’ll find nesting bald eagles, blue crabs, saltwater fish and a “more dynamic system,” she says. “This functions more like an estuary and less like a pond, which is kind of how it was acting before.”

A wild 80-acre marsh and a migratory fly-over, the park is frequented by more animals than people. A gaggle of 10 downy goslings are poking at the water’s edge, with several adult geese watching over them. We stay clear and gaze up a long channel, part of the original Frederick Law Olmsted design, topped by the red cliffs of West Rock far in the distance. The Yale crew team used to race here, Macdonald tells us.

A short drive up Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, we visit a spot where New Haveners are more likely to come in contact with the West River: the Edgewood Park Duck Pond. Here we find not only ducks and more geese, but a vibrant white egret standing at water’s edge, red-winged blackbirds swooping over the adjacent marsh and several turtles sunning themselves on a partially submerged log. When I stop to listen, I can hear at least five different bird calls. Concerns about the effect on the pond of the tide’s reach upriver were addressed in 2012 with two bridges that allow the pond to overflow into a freshwater wetland that was previously lawn. About 50 volunteers helped plant native species in this spot in 2012, Macdonald says, but much of what’s growing here established itself, including a stand of furry cattails. “There’s a seed bank in places like this,” she says, “so there are species that we did not plant that came up immediately.”

The final stop on our watershed tour is around the corner at Edgewood School, where CFE/Save the Sound built one of the city’s first bioswales in 2014 with the help of the Urban Resources Initiative, the city and Edgewood students. The miniature fenced garden, planted on the right of way between sidewalk and street and measuring about eight by 30 feet, collects rainwater before it enters the city’s combined storm water/sewer system. Keeping rainwater out of the storm drainage is essential to a clean water supply, Macdonald says. Otherwise, the system overflows during large storms. “That means both untreated sewage and storm water from our roads and roofs and other things goes together in one pipe and flows directly out into the river or the sound,” she says, adding, “That’s not good.”

Two simple curb cuts divert water from the street into the garden, which is planted with inkberry, butterfly milkweed and heavy metal switch grass, all good at soaking up plenty of water when it’s wet and weathering the dry spells. “They also pull nutrients—nitrogen and phosphorous—out of the runoff,” Macdonald says, another way to improve the quality of water that ends up in the Sound.

Once the city saw that this and several other bioswales worked, Macdonald says, they jumped on board. Drive around town today, and you’ll notice some of the 150 bioswales that have been built to divert stormwater—about 75 downtown and 75 in the West River watershed area. You can recognize these little 5’x15’ gardens by their distinctive curb cuts and small black chain fences. As a bonus, some of their plants will soon be blooming.

Modifications are being made to the large pipe that runs under the Boulevard, which will make it less likely to overflow, but residents can also help improve water quality on an individual level, Macdonald and Allen say. CFE/Save the Sound offers information on eco-conscious lawn care for homeowners and reducing harmful runoff. Welcoming newcomers, the West River Watershed Coalition meets every second Wednesday to discuss watershed issues and plan events that help the public “explore and engage in stewardship of the West River,” according to coalition steering committee member Kathy Fay.

CFE/Save the Sound is also helping some New Haveners install rain gardens in their front yards, diverting rainwater that once flowed directly from downspouts into the sewer system. The weekend before our walk, Macdonald and Allen were in Beaver Hills with a crew of volunteers at the home of Rossie and Angela Covington, helping the family unhook their downspouts from the stormwater pipe, divert the water away from the house and dig two bowl-shaped gardens in their front yard. The new gardens were then planted with a variety of low-maintenance native species including columbine, marsh marigold, blue flag iris and butterfly milkweed.

New Haven is in the forefront of many of these water-saving moves, Macdonald says. “The best-case scenario, in our minds,” she says, “is that other municipalities can learn from what New Haven is doing.”

Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound
900 Chapel St, Suite 2202, New Haven (map)
(203) 787-0646

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-3 and 5 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 4 photographed by Dan Mims. Image 1 features a view of the West River and West Rock. Image 2 features Angela Covington and helpers creating a rain garden. Image 3 features a tidal gate. Image 4 features a duck at the Edgewood Park Duck Pond. Image 5 features Gwen Macdonald and Anthony Allen at a bioswale near Edgewood School.

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