Torrington – If conservationists had their way, the downtown section of the Naugatuck River might be a trout angler’s paradise. That it is not can be blamed, in their minds, on Hurricane Katrina.
Two miles of levees in the city center were built in the late 1950s to protect downtown businesses and residential neighborhoods.
Following the Great Flood of 1955 (the result of two back-to-back hurricanes), the Army Corps of Engineers straightened, widened and deepened the river channel while also constructing earthen dikes and concrete floodwalls.
Levees also were built in Waterbury, Ansonia and Derby.
“Back then, the primary concern was the damage done and the loss of life. And of course, that was before the environmental movement,” said Tim Barry, a biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “From a fisheries viewpoint, it pretty much wrecked the river.”
About 20 years ago, DEEP, the city of Torrington (which owns and maintains the levees) and conservation groups like Trout Unlimited began talking with the Corps about ways to restore the fish habitat.
The goal was to recreate a more natural setting with a canopy of vegetation to provide shade, which would cool the waters in the Naugatuck and make it more hospitable to trout.
During the summer of 2000, boulders were placed in the river, and trees were allowed to mature on the banks. “We were bringing the river back and approaching a normal river channel,” said Barry.
Then Katrina slammed into New Orleans in August 2005, and that city’s levees failed tragically. In response, the Corps grew stricter with municipalities that had signed agreements years earlier to maintain levees.
Torrington was instructed to clean up the banks, remove any trees larger than 6 inches in diameter, clear and inspect the drains, and correct erosion.
The city was warned it would be ineligible for federal disaster aid if flooding occurred and the levees failed.
“If a change (in the maintenance agreement) infringes or reduces the actual flood protection benefit, that’s something the Corps can’t compromise on,” said Scott Michalak, its chief of geotechnical water resources in New England. “It’s not that we don’t want to. We have our own environmental people. But we can’t unless Congress changes the project purpose.”
The levees in Torrington are now rated “minimally acceptable” by the Corps, which inspects them every year. There are three ratings: acceptable, minimally acceptable and unacceptable.
“We’ve done a lot of work over the last four years to bring them up to the standard the Corps wanted,” said Jerry Rollett, Torrington’s public works superintendent.
Rollett estimated his department spends $50,000 annually on levee maintenance.