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Dying fish in the Naugatuck River in Connecticut prompt urgent calls to remove a dam

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Courtesy Save the Sound
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U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal speaks alongside environmentalists at Kinneytown Dam on the Naugatuck River in Seymour, Connecticut.

A decades-old dam blocks thousands of fish in Connecticut from traveling up the Naugatuck River to spawn.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal and environmentalists want a federal agency to remove the Kinneytown Dam to restore the river.

“The Naugatuck River is a source of immense wildlife habitat. Except if fish are blocked from migrating, when the fish are blocked from migrating, the rest of the ecosystems suffers as well,” Blumenthal said.

A fish ladder was built in 1998 as a way for mature fish to migrate around the dam, but the passageway needs to be restored because small hydroelectric powerhouses on the river are out of service.

“That fish ladder has been a total abject failure and the Kinneytown project owners have known about it,” Blumenthal said. “They have failed to do anything about it.”

Environmentalists and local elected officials have long-advocated for the dam to be removed. The fish get stuck when they instinctively move upstream to reach ideal spawning grounds: secluded with plenty of food and away from predators.

Kevin Zak, president of the Naugatuck River Revival Group, has spent the better part of the last decade documenting the fish deaths at the dam with underwater cameras.

“What you have is two very different, but equally efficient killing machines: one above the dam and one below the dam,” Zak said.

Exhausted fish that come through the fish passageway at the top of the dam are eaten by larger fish. Migrating juvenile fish are also prayed upon when they come up against this dam.

“I've been down here in the middle of the night watching baby eels ascend to a dead end. There's a wooden barrier here. They go straight up for about 20 feet, and they fall back down,” Zak said.

It’s up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to decide whether to close the Kinneytown Dam, which was purchased last year by Hydroland Omega. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

“They refuse to cooperate; refuse to respond. They refuse to respond to orders and comments filed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection,” said Rick Dunne, executive director of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments.

Dunne said he hopes U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services could evaluate the fish deaths at the dam, which previous owners did not allow.

In a letter sent to federal regulators in March, Hydroland proposed to repair parts of the dam to reduce spillage, automate the canal gates to better control the pond level and rehabilitate the Ansonia powerhouse in 2022 and 2023.

The Fish and Wildlife Service responded that “while these efforts may improve fish passage efficiency ... the proposed plan would not fully resolve the fundamental problems of false attraction and stranding.”

“The standard has always been the same for this facility: safe, timely and effective fish passage,” Dunne said, referencing the proposal at the dam. “This facility doesn't meet any of those standards.”

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.