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Building Trout Pools: Habitat Project Progresses At Pootatuck River



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Key elements of a project to enhance the habitat for wild trout in the Pootatuck River were accomplished this week, when a Montana firm specializing in such work put a large excavator into the river to build boulder-lined “trout pools” on the riverbed, and also install the “root wads” of dead trees in the riverbank to provide “places of refuge” for the trout, with the eventual goal of increasing the native trout population.

The ongoing habitat project is occurring in a Class 1 Wild Trout Management Area, as designated by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). It is one of nine such areas in Connecticut where trout populations are able to sustain themselves by natural reproduction. Recreational fishing is allowed in the area on a catch-and-release basis.

It was unusual to see a large, bright yellow Caterpillar excavator repeatedly travel on its heavy tracks both upstream and downstream in the now-shallow Pootatuck River, fetching both sizable boulders and the trunks of dead trees with roots attached for their careful placement on the riverbed and in the riverbank, respectively.

The project required that DEEP review and issue many environmental protection permits to ensure that it was done properly.

As the work progressed, Lance Bigelow and Brian Cowden, the co-owners of Trout Scapes River Restoration LLC of Bozeman, Mont., watched equipment operator Ron Weekes swiftly and deftly maneuver the large excavator in the river. Although the excavator weighs tens of thousands of pounds, its broad and even weight distribution via its massive tracks prevents it from sinking into the deep muck of the riverbed, Mr Cowden explained. Besides construction, Trout Scapes designed the project.

Joe Hovious, vice president of the Pootatuck Watershed Association (PWA), looked on and commented on the environmental value of the project intended to enhance trout habitat. The PWA is the project’s lead agency, among several participating groups. The town government also is taking part in the project.

Besides helping the environmentally sensitive wild trout survive in the Pootatuck River system, it is thought that the placement of root wads along the riverbank may provide suitable shelter to help the threatened local species known as the wood turtle.

DEEP has allowed the construction aspect of the project to occur in September because the water in the river is typically low, and the wood turtle is likely away from the river. A search for any wood turtles near the river was performed before construction started, but none were found.

“We’ve got a narrow window,” Mr Hovious said of the brief time period during which such riverine construction is allowed.

The Left Bank

The project focuses on approximately 200 linear feet of the left bank of the river, when viewed looking downstream. That area is comprised of two riverbank sections where the placement of root wads will retard riverbank erosion during high water levels.

The affected river sections border the farm fields at Fairfield Hills. The habitat project is occurring along a section of the Pootatuck River just upriver of its confluence with its tributary Deep Brook.

Michael Jastremski, who is the Housatonic Valley Association’s (HVA) watershed conservation director, is the PWA’s manager for the habitat project. The Pootatuck River is in the Housatonic River’s watershed.

Mr Jastremski said September 24 that when seasonal high water levels return to the Pootatuck River, the effectiveness of the construction work performed by Trout Scapes will be evaluated. DEEP is expected to return to the area next summer to count the population of wild trout/native brook trout in the river, he said.

“We’re creating a pocket of really excellent [trout] habitat” to be used as a refuge by the fish, he said.

The state Department of Agriculture, the Candlewood Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and the Newtown Forest Association also are participating in various aspects of the project.

The project budget is approximately $50,000 in private funds. The Town of Newtown is making an in-kind contribution of roughly $2,000 to the project in the form of providing tree trunks with attached root wads, some large boulders, and town workers’ related labor costs.

In the project, approximately 10-foot-long tree trunk sections, which have the dead trees’ root wads still attached to the trunk, are buried horizontally and perpendicularly along the riverbank, with a small fraction of each tree trunk’s root wad exposed at the riverbank at the river’s high-water level. Some boulders also will be placed along the riverbank.

The intricate root wads provide underwater shelter and protective cover for the native trout in the river, with the intent of providing physical conditions conducive to their longevity and eventual reproduction. The riverbank’s geometry also is being improved, with stable shallow slopes created to replace unstable vertical riverbank sections.

In the coming months, willow trees and dogwood trees will be planted alongside the river to improve trout habitat by providing shade to keep the water cool in the summertime.

“The whole idea is to work with the stream to replicate natural conditions” that are beneficial to trout, according to Mr Jastremski.

After the construction work is done, there will be a need for volunteers to help plant the shade trees along the riverbank. Such tree planting has occurred in that general area in the past as part of a long-term effort to improve the trout habitat in the river system.

A large excavator working in the Pootatuck River is shown moving boulders from a stockpile on shore to the riverbed, where the rocks were placed this week to create “trout pools,” or places or refuge, as part of a project to improve wild trout habitat in the river. —Bee Photo, Gorosko
This closeup shows the bucket of an excavator clutching a tree’s “root wad” to be installed in the Pootatuck River’s riverbank, foreground, to create a place of shelter or refuge for wild trout that live there. —Joe Hovious photo
An excavator positioned in the middle of the Pootatuck River is being used to position boulders on the riverbed to create trout pools, a place of refuge for trout.—Bee Photo, Gorosko
The bucket at the end of an excavator's long arm is preparing to pluck a boulder from the Pootatuck River's shoreline to place it on the riverbed for use in a trout pool.—Bee Photo, Gorosko
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