Connecticut Post (Sunday)

The dam that holds the key to the Naugatuck’s rebirth

- Hugh Bailey is editorial page editor of the New Haven Register and Connecticu­t Post. He can be reached at hbailey@hearstmedi­

The dream, which is nearly within reach, is a rebirth of one of the most abused waterways in the nation’s industrial history. What may be the final obstacle is a long-obsolete 25-foot dam that dates back almost two centuries and serves no useful purpose.

Getting around it one way or another is necessary for the Naugatuck River’s longterm health, and it’s a journey that took a major step forward recently.

The Kinneytown Dam in Seymour, which dates to 1844, is the “keystone” to the Naugatuck’s recovery, one local activist said, and solving the dilemmas it creates would mean the reemergenc­e of a oncegreat natural resource.

Kinneytown, which is actually two facilities, including one downstream off a canal in Ansonia, is an out-of-service hydroelect­ric plant that hasn’t produced energy at either site in a year, maybe longer. Because it’s not functionin­g as intended, water simply flows over the top, churning up the river and keeping fish away from a ladder designed to allow them passage to the waterway’s upper reaches. What should be throngs of fish passing through each year has been measured at a small fraction of that — a recent count found exactly 12, when it could be thousands.

For people with a long memory, the idea of doing anything in the Naugatuck River other than steering clear might sound like a bad idea. The Naugatuck was rendered nearly lifeless by decades of industrial degradatio­n, with the water changing colors — and smells — based on what was being manufactur­ed and dumped in upriver.

All that was a long time ago. Most of the factories have long since closed. Thanks to years of remediatio­n — and the closed factories — the river is again a source of life, rather than an afterthoug­ht.

Public entities have spent millions of dollars bringing the river back near its former self. Most spectacula­r is the $6.3 million fish bypass at Tingue Dam in Seymour, which was intended to be a final piece of the river’s rebirth. But complicati­ons at Kinneytown, just downstream, mean the Tingue fish ladder isn’t working because the fish can’t get there. To make the most of those public investment­s, Kinneytown needs to be solved.

“This is the keystone for the river,” said Kevin Zak, head of the nonprofit Naugatuck River Revival Group. “It’s an actual, tangible piece of nature that you actually put back together.”

The dam is owned by a Washington, D.C.-based company called Hydroland, which activists say has been unresponsi­ve to requests, demands or any other form of communicat­ion. And while hydroelect­ric power is considered renewable because it doesn’t produce emissions like burning fossil fuels, it creates all kinds of environmen­tal problems on its own. There’s no reason to hope the power plant comes back into operation.

The crux of the issue is a federal exemption the dam has been operating under, which means that because it’s so small, it doesn’t have to go through an expensive relicensin­g procedure at regular intervals. But that’s contingent on the dam not causing environmen­tal harm; by blocking the fish from getting past, that’s no longer the case, locals say. They want the exemption revoked and the owner to be forced to apply for a new license, a process that would require solving the fish problem.

Hydroland, which has owned Kinneytown for less than a year, said in a recent filing with the federal government that it intends to improve the facility, but cautioned that it would take “considerab­le time.” To local officials, the company is asking for an indefinite timeline that has the effect of doing nothing. To their mind, the river has waited long enough.

The real question is what happens next. If the exemption is revoked, the owner would be on the hook to fix what’s wrong. But even when the power generation plant functioned, the fish ladder hadn’t been all that effective. To truly bring the fish back, the dam would likely have to go.

There’s precedent for that, as a number of dams upriver have been removed over the years. The Tingue Dam survived only because Route 8 passes directly overhead, and removal could have affected highway supports.

With officials from first selectmen up to the congressio­nal delegation all on board with improvemen­ts and no real need for the power generation, removal shouldn’t be out of the question. The result could be thousands of fish running the length of the river, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the early 1800s, and a bloom in ecodiversi­ty.

The hundreds of millions already spent on Naugatuck revitaliza­tion has been money well spent. But to get the most out of the project, Kinneytown has to be overcome.

It’s the last step in a project many people probably thought they’d never see.

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