History of the Connecticut River Watershed Council
One of America’s earliest watershed associations, the Connecticut River Watershed Council (CRWC) first met in 1952 at the historic Weldon Hotel in Greenfield, MA. Its initial goals were to confront staggering water pollution problems throughout the watershed, to embrace the new concept of watershed-wide planning and to stave off the perceived threat from Washington, D.C. that would have turned the Connecticut River into another Tennessee Valley Authority. CRWC's aim at that time was to retain control of planning in local and state hands. During its first decade CRWC focused on raising consciousness about what was then described as “America’s best landscaped sewer,” through publication of an atlas of natural resources and by holding conferences, planning boating trips on the river, and helping create watershed associations in the tributaries, such as the Farmington and the Westfield. In September 1959, CRWC President Dr. Joseph Davidson and his wife made a high profile trip the full length of the river to draw attention to its sad condition, more than once donning gasmasks. The well-known photo above was taken at Turners Falls, MA, during filming of the documentary "Source to the Sea".
CRWC continued to support water pollution control projects and published brochures of the laws, regulations, and agencies related to pollution for local citizens and officials. In 1965 the Council published a study of pesticide pollution in cooperation with the Farmington and Westfield River Watershed Associations, as well as the first guide book to the Connecticut River in 1966. And CRWC continued to fight successfully against recommendations from federal agencies, first, a suggestion from the Corps of Engineers for more multi-purpose dams in the Upper Valley and, second, a recommendation from the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation for a Connecticut River National Recreation Area.
In 1969 CRWC began a major new initiative – the CRWC Land Conservation Program, which sought to protect critical habitat and natural areas through purchase and easements. Finally, at the end of the decade, the Watershed Council helped organize a grassroots struggle to prevent diversion of Connecticut River water into the Quabbin Reservoir for water supply to the Boston area, a struggle that continues fitfully to this day.
To its already full plate, CRWC added two new program elements, the most important of which was restoration of migratory fisheries. The Watershed Council called for abolition of high-seas fishing for Atlantic salmon and requested regulations to require hydropower dam owners to install fish passages and ladders. The second program is the Council’s continuing Conservation, Education, and Research Program (CERP) that provides small grants to support research aimed at the protection and wise use of the watershed’s natural resources.
CRWC initiated its first in a series of short canoe trips on the river and built a new headquarters in Easthampton, now home to Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Sanctuary and continued the fight against pollution with opposition against a proposed pulp mill in the Upper Valley and another attempt to divert Connecticut River water to the Quabbin. The Council worked for legislation to reduce the threat of oil pollution in the Hartford region and to prevent construction of nuclear power plants until the problem of nuclear waste has been solved.
While CRWC continued to act as the watershed’s guardian and watchdog, it became clear that the Watershed Council had lost its way trying to do too much. Internal struggles and staff changes left the Council without leadership in its Land Conservation Program by the mid-80s.
Nonetheless, CRWC continued to lead a series of successful challenges, including the defeat of a proposal to build a dam near Windsor, VT that would have flooded out Sumner (Hartland) Falls and the species-rich “macrosite” near Cornish, NH and yet one more attempt to divert Connecticut River water to the Quabbin. The Watershed Council also supported efforts to clean up combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in urban areas, to develop a Massachusetts Action Plan for a greenway that would protect farmland and open space, and to develop strategies to protect lands along the Salmon River in CT.
With the economic recession of the early 90s, subsequent loss of corporate and individual donations, and internal feuding, CRWC endured a near-death experience. Through retrenchment the Watershed Council managed to maintain several staff members and reorganize into its current form with an executive director, office staff, and river stewards.
CRWC redefined its role as land conservation advocate and began divesting itself of some of its holdings. The Council, however, continued its work reviewing permits for developments, overseeing re-licensing of hydroelectric dams, performing outreach, and removing of dams and building of fishways for migratory fish. New initiatives were added, including the annual Source-to-Sea Cleanup and the purchase and renovation of a historic Greenfield, MA building to serve as headquarters, very near the site of the first CRWC headquarters in 1952.
In addition, CRWC staff spent a significant amount of time on two other watershed-wide initiatives – the S.O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge and the inclusion of the Connecticut as one of America’s fourteen American Heritage Rivers.
The 21st Century
The Watershed Council remains committed to its role as guardian and watchdog, carefully reviewing development permits, dam relicensing, indeed any major action that impacts the rivers in our watershed. CRWC retains its outreach programs, its support of migratory fisheries, and CERP’s small grants. We work closely with our partners up and down the valley to keep citizens alert and the river as healthy as possible.
Focused strategic planning on the part of the Board of Trustees and staff have set the Council on sound financial footing and developed a strong programmatic focus, namely Advocacy, Restoration, and Outreach, each of which you will find on CRWC’s home page.
The next few years will continue this work and add one of CRWC’s long-cherished wishes – a water-quality testing lab at our home office. The Watershed Council is ready to embrace the future. Will you join us?
Want more detail?
The history above is abreviated from a lenghty report that appeared in CRWC's 50th Anniversary edition of the newsletter Currents and Eddies. For more information, download a text version of the article (PDF 72KB).
Image (Above) CRWC Archive
Image Credits at Right - Illustrations: Bill Singleton; Photos: Elizabeth Leong, Megan Hearne, Ron Bouley www.ronbouleyphoto.com, Nancy Rich, Boating Guide cover photo © McConnell/McNamara, CRWC Archive.