Advocates, officials call for improvements to neglected dam

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By Michael Puffer, Republican-American

Issues block fish from upper reaches of the Naugatuck River

The Kinneytown Dam in Seymour is shown Dec. 28. -STEVEN VALENTI/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

SEYMOUR — It has been centuries since the Naugatuck River had runs of alewife, shad, striped bass or other fish that move from fresh water to the ocean and back again.

A series of dams dating back to the 1700s helped fuel the Naugatuck Valley’s industrial might but prevented spawning runs of fish. The area’s industrial legacy also led to heavy pollution. Older locals recall the river running different colors depending on what the manufacturing mills were producing that day.

With several dams removed and environmental regulations leading to cleaner waters, the scene is set for an environmental comeback, advocates say, and shad, striped bass, salmon, alewives and other fish are knocking at the door.

But these fish haven’t been able to get through to the upper reaches of the Naugatuck River, environmentalists and biologists say, because of the neglected Kinneytown Dam and an associated fish ladder.

Instead, thousands of fish die every year just below the 400-foot-long dam, unable to get to roughly 32 miles of potential spawning grounds in the Naugatuck River beyond, said Kevin Zak, head of the Naugatuck River Revival Group.

Zak, a professional housepainter who lives in Naugatuck, has spent more than a decade hauling tons of trash out of the Naugatuck River, one tire, trash bag, railroad tie or engine block at a time.

Now, he’s part of a coalition of environmentalists, elected officials and advocates targeting the Kinneytown Dam. He’s been joined by the statewide environmental nonprofit Save the Sound, the 19-town Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments and others.

“The company that owns this needs to come up with a plan because that’s part of their license,” Zak said. “They are not supposed to stop the fish coming up and down.”

The coalition is making headway.

In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which permits the Kinneytown Dam — to fix or reactivate a portion of the Kinneytown hydro dam in Ansonia. This is seen as a necessary step toward making the fish ladder operate at least as well as designed.

Advocates say the long, zig-zagging, fish ladder is an old design and never worked well. According to Save the Sound, less than 100 shad passed the fish ladder in a decade before the Ansonia hydro generator went offline.

The ladder works even less well with the Ansonia hydro portion offline. This has caused excess water to spill over the Seymour section of the dam, creating a rush that steers fish away from the ladder, advocates say.

The Federal Energy Regulary Commission has opened a review, and, in October, asked Kinneytown Hydro Co. to answer for the dormant Ansonia hydro generator and the faulty fish passage.

Zak and the Naugatuck River Restoration Coalition, as the group calls itself, have lawyers pushing for a broader review.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., added his clout to the effort Dec. 28, meeting with environmentalists and area mayors next to the dam.

“It was constructed — maybe with good intent — poorly and defective,” Blumenthal said. “It’s not doing its job. … The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission needs to do its job, just as this fish ladder needs to be repaired so it can do its job. And I am going to cajole, persuade, pummel the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of the docket that has been opened by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess envisions a day when striped bass and other fish from Long Island Sound swim past the borough in the river that bears its name.

“It really, really promotes economic development and it helps the region,” Hess said.

From left, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Ansonia Mayor David S. Cassetti and Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren ‘Pete’ Hess look out at the Kinneytown Dam in Seymour on Dec. 28. Naugatuck River activists discussed improvements needs for the dam during a news conference. -STEVEN VALENTI/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Rick Dunne, executive director of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, said the fish ladder has been “allowed to fail” for at least a decade. Dunne said his group is also “deeply concerned” about the poor condition of the overall dam. Water flows freely through cracks in the face of the dam, Dunne said. He’s worried about risk to lives and property downstream.

Bill Lucey, who monitors water quality, fish and wildlife for Save the Sound, attributes recent progress to Zak’s efforts. Zak has spent years gathering evidence of fish piling up under the Kinneytown Dam. Lucey’s organization has made the Kinneytown Dam a top priority, as an effective fish passage could restore dozens of miles of fish habitat.

“I’m really excited because I think it’s going to happen,” Lucey said. “Something’s going to happen here and in 30 years this place is going to be blossoming.”