Coalition helps the Connecticut River become the first National Blueway

Between 40 and 50 local and state entities, both public and private, from four states will work together to preserve the 410-mile-long Connecticut River and its watershed.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File
The Connecticut River, as photographed from the French King Bridge in Gill, Mass. The river and its watershed have been named the first National Blueway, an effort to coordinate the work of nonprofit groups and governments to protect and wisely use the entire 410-mile river and its 7.2 million acre watershed.

Science writer Willy Ley once said: “Ideas, like large rivers, never have just one source.” The same can be said for the Connecticut River Watershed, the first National Blueway in the United States, as designated May 24 by the US Interior Department.

It took the cooperation of between 40 and 50 local and state, public and private, organizations from four states to make the designation possible. While it doesn't mean more federal funding, it does mean better coordination between these groups to promote best practices, information sharing, and stewardship.

National Blueway is more than a label, says Andy Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council.

“There are no turf wars here, but there are a lot of folks on the dance floor,” Mr. Fisk says. “It’s important to recognize that this is a new way in how you get things done. It’s not one entity that will get things done, it’s diversity.”

The 7.2 million acre Connecticut River watershed runs through four New England states: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

The idea for a National Blueways System comes from President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which highlights grass-roots efforts in land and water conservation. National Blueways will coordinate federal, state, and local efforts by promoting best practices, sharing information and resources, and encouraging collaboration. Existing federal designations for rivers generally cover only a segment of a river and its corridor: A National Blueway will comprise the entire river, as well as its watershed.

Among the groups involved in the Connecticut River National Blueway are the Friends of the Silvio O. Conte Refuge, the Connecticut Watershed Council, the Connecticut River Museum, and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

At 410 miles long, the Connecticut River is New England’s largest and longest. Starting in New Hampshire, the silt-rich river empties into the Long Island Sound at Old Saybrook and Old Lyme, Conn.

It is also one of the only major rivers in the world that remains largely undeveloped, says Jerry Roberts, executive director of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Conn. A sand bar at the river’s mouth prevented a large seaport city from developing there.

“I’m looking out my window and see nothing but trees; that’s unusual for a river this size,” Mr. Roberts says.

The National Blueway designation will encourage people to regard the Connecticut River as a source of recreation, as well as something to be conserved, Roberts says. That’s no easy task considering the 7.2 million acre watershed reaches into four states.

People can get involved in protecting the river in many ways, large and small, Fisk says. They can take water-quality samples or plant trees on the banks of the river. They can help maintain one of several paddling trails on the river or campgrounds on its banks.

“Whether you are living in rural Vermont or you are a school kid in a city like Hartford [Conn.] or Springfield [Mass.] you can get involved,” Fisk says.

American rivers can also provide a source for economic opportunity, so long as they are carefully managed, say both the US Department of the Interior and the US Department of Agriculture. The Connecticut River is an important economic source. About 1.4 million people enjoy the watershed yearly, and it contributes about $1 billion to local economies, according to the Trust for Public Land, a national, nonprofit land-conservation organization.

“Rivers are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to global warming,” Roberts says. “As sea levels rise, rivers rise, and property gets lost. The tidal area will start to extend further up. By monitoring these things now we can establish a baseline and see where we are in 20 years. The designation will help people realize the battle is not over.”

The National Blueway designation also offers a chance to better preserve the river’s history, Roberts says.

Historic covered bridges, known as kissing bridges or courting bridges, span the waterway in Vermont and New Hampshire. In Charleston, N.H., Fort No. 4 is the site of one of the first European settlements in the upper Connecticut River Valley. It wasn’t, however, the site of the first human settlement on the river. That dates back about 11,000 years when Paleo-Indians settled on its banks. Europeans arrived in 1614.

Over time the river valley has played an enormous role in the development of New England and the nation. It’s abundant wood and stone, and fertile valleys, made it an ideal place to settle. About 2.4 million people now live in the watershed area.

The river’s name comes from a French corruption of the Algonquian word “quinetucket,” which means “long tidal river.” That's an apt name considering the river stays tidal all the way to Windsor Locks, Conn., some 60 miles inland from its mouth.

Machine-tool factories have dotted the waterway from the Robbins and Lawrence Armory and Machine Shop in Windsor, Vt., to the Colt Factory in Hartford. The river rebounded starting in 1965 with passage of the federal Water Quality Act. The river's water quality has risen from Class D to Class B.

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