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Ten Years On, Lower Farmington River May Receive Protected Status

Brent Soderberg

A bill before the U.S. House of Representatives would designate Connecticut's lower Farmington River as “wild and scenic,” which means it would get federal funding and protection. Last week the U.S. Senate voted in favor of it, something advocates have wanted them to do for nearly ten years.

Eileen Fielding is a conservationist and executive director of the Farmington River Watershed Association in Simsbury. She said, “400 years ago, what we’d be wanting to do is walk out on some of these rock outcrops. And it would be a great place to be spearing or netting sturgeon or salmon or shad, and in fact that’s what the Native Americans did in this gorge.”

The fish today aren’t out as much as they used to be. In order to come back, they’d need things like fish ladders to get around the dams and hydroelectric plants on the river, and those aren’t cheap. Having official “wild and scenic” status would give the river access to money from the National Parks Service. It could be used to fight invasive species, or to help control erosion that could damage sewer pipes, or to bring back those fish.

“We could have real riches coming in from the Atlantic, and restoring some of the fish fauna that were here before. That’s largely a matter of getting the barriers out of the way.”

The upper part of the river runs from Canton to Holbrook. It was classified as “wild and scenic” in 1994. It’s still one of only two rivers in the state that received that designation. The majority are in the western U.S. Fielding says the lower part of the river -- which runs from Canton to Windsor -- deserves that designation, too.

“Rivers don’t respect political boundaries. What happens upstream affects somebody downstream. The more people can be in agreement about the smart way to manage a river, the better off the river is.”

The bill also includes federal status for Salmon Brook, a tributary of the Farmington. The designation takes approval from local, state and federal governments, which is a slow process. The first bill to give the Farmington River federal status was proposed in 2012, but it stalled in Congress every year since then.

That fact is frustrating to Sally Rieger, who is with a group that did a study on the river in 2011. “It’s slow that things have to happen by horse-trading, would you say?”

U.S Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has been backing the bill since he served in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011. Current U.S. Representatives Elizabeth Esty and John Larson are backing the bill that’s in the House now. The most recent version was stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, but it passed last week as part of a larger energy package.

Rieger says whether or not it passes in the House, it won’t change how the people who use the river see it now.

“The river represents a little bit of wildness for local people. When you come down on the river, the sound of the river, the birds, fish if you’re lucky enough to see one in the water, give you a sense that you’ve gone somewhere.”

Still, Rieger hopes the bill to preserve it goes somewhere, too. Because, she says, it will matter to future generations.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.