The Naugatuck River of 1955, which stormed its banks and destroyed neighborhoods, was not just an angry river 60 years ago, but a dead one.
“There were no fish in the river,” said Steve Gephard, a fisheries biologist for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “I’ve heard that when the state Department of Health did a survey of the river, they couldn’t even find bacteria living in it.”
How did the river get from there to the present, on the cusp of losing its official polluted status?
Stricter environmental laws passed at the state and federal levels in the late 1960s and early 1970s started the process. Many of the industries that dumped their wastes have since disappeared.
The eight municipal sewage plants along the river were upgraded or replaced, the most significant being Waterbury’s in 2000.
But much of the turnaround has been a grassroots effort.
Bob Gregorski is a 76-year-old retired math teacher from Pomperaug High School. An avid fly fisherman, the Middlebury resident was one of the instigators when the Pomperaug chapter of Trout Unlimited changed into the Pomperaug-Naugatuck chapter in 1984.
“Nobody was touching the river back then,” said Gregorski, who is also President of the Naugatuck Watershed Association and an outdoors columnist for the Republican-American. “We thought it was a diamond in the rough.”
“We saw such degradation and abuse of the river, and we thought we should try to do something about it,” said Frank McDonald, 84, a former state Supreme Court justice and another member of the chapter.
In 1987, Trout Unlimited got state permission to purchase trout and stock them in the river. “We figured if only some survived, they’d be the hardiest fish on the planet,” Gregorski said.
Shortly thereafter, the DEEP started stocking its own trout. In 1992, it started stocking Atlantic salmon.
Trout Unlimited invited community groups to join its cleanup efforts, working with a dozen different school organizations and three scout troops. Thousands of people have taken part in more than 60 cleanups in the Waterbury-Naugatuck stretch of the river over the last 30 years.
They have lugged everything from lawn mowers to car transmissions to sofas out of the river, while planting more than 20,000 trees and bushes to reduce erosion and restore the riparian habitat.
In Torrington, the Northwest Connecticut chapter of Trout Unlimited took up the cause. One year, the annual spring cleanup dredged more than 100 shopping carts out of the river. This year, chapter President Jim Fedorich was giddy after only two were found in the drink.
Kevin Zak, head of Naugatuck River Revival, is someone else who has been picking up trash for decades. Zak, a 55-year-old painter, lives on the Naugatuck-Waterbury line and can view the river from his backyard.
While he applauds the cleanup efforts, he has shifted his focus in recent years. Much of the debris now consists of Styrofoam coffee cups, fast-food wrappers and plastic shopping bags.
“We need to stop the trash from going into the river in the first place,” Zak said. “It would be easier and more cost-efficient.”
Zak found his solution on the other side of the country in Ventura, Calif., which outfitted its storm drains in 2008 with trash excluders. The devices work much like the screens people place in bathrooms sinks to catch hair, except these are made of steel and cost $150 to $200 apiece.
Zak said he has talked with every municipality in the valley. Some officials have been receptive, others lukewarm at best.
Waterbury, though, purchased 15 of the trash excluders two years ago and installed them at some of its most problematic catch basins.
“It increases the frequency that we have to clean those catch basins. Is that good or bad?” said David Simpson, the city’s head of public works. “I say it’s OK. It does prevent stuff from getting into the system, and some of that stuff could’ve jammed up a pipe, so it does protect the system.”
Asked if he would recommend buying more, Simpson said, “I would, and we may buy some more as funding allows.”
Obviously, storm runoff isn’t the only way trash gets into the river. But Zak is zealous in his efforts to get more towns to follow Waterbury’s example.
“When we stop (the flow of trash), the aesthetic value of this river will really increase,” said Zak. “The Naugatuck is a good story, but it still needs work.”