The Five Mile River, which runs from the New York State border through New Canaan, Norwalk and Darien before emptying into Long Island Sound, will be cleaned up under a plan endorsed by chief elected officials in those towns Thursday afternoon at Norwalk Community College.
"Some of the worst conditions are down here in Norwalk, where the ground is impervious," Robert Wagman, a Norwalk resident and member of the Five Mile River Steering Committee, said after Norwalk Mayor Richard A. Moccia, Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and New Canaan First Selectman Robert E. Mallozzi III signed a pledge to support the plan.
"It's got to be a cooperative effort -- neighbors have to pay attention to what they're doing, but the cities have to help as well."
"It's important for quality of life and property values," Wagman said of improving the river's water quality. "It's important we take corrective action."
Alexis Cherichetti, a senior environmental officer for the city of Norwalk, said the river doesn't meet state and federal water quality standards for indicator bacteria and nitrogen. Sampling of the water showed indicator bacteria is lowest at the headwaters in New Canaan and highest in the lower part of the river in Norwalk. In the lower section, indicator bacteria, which points to the presence of human and animal waste, ranges from two to seven times above the standard.
Residential and commercial growth, notably the proliferation of impervious surfaces like parking lots and rooftops, has changed the way stormwater moves across the watershed. Increased runoff carries more chemicals and pollutants into the Five Mile and its tributaries, harming fish and other aquatic organisms. Impervious surfaces can also contribute to the intensity and frequency of flooding on the Five Mile River, which is detrimental to nearby properties as well as river wildlife.
Cherichetti said 80 percent of the river's watershed consists of residential properties, so informing homeowners about what they can do to improve the river's water quality is essential to the plan's success. The watershed covers nearly 8,000 acres of land.
"We don't have any major point discharges of pollution that aren't heavily regulated already," Cherichetti said, adding that the plan seeks to inform more than 1,900 people who live within 300 feet of the river in Norwalk, Darien and New Canaan that the water quality is poor, reasons it's poor and what they can do to improve it.
The ways watershed residents can improve the water quality include:
Disposing of pet waste in the toilet or trash and not in a storm drain.
Ensuring their septic system tanks are in good condition and pumping them out every three years.
Not feeding wildlife.
Not using excessive amounts of lawn fertilizers, which can wash into the river during storms.
Leaving grass clippings on their lawns.
Planting streamside buffers to catch pollutants from their yards so the pollutants don't enter the river during storms.
"As rainwater travels across the landscape, it has opportunities to pick up fertilizers, pesticides, motor oil, pet waste and pollutants," Cherichetti said.
"One yard may not have a significant amount, but, cumulatively, our yards total more than 80 percent of the Five Mile River Watershed ... . I think there's a general unawareness of the connection between Point A and Point B."
Moccia said it was important to continue to educate homeowners who live in the Five Mile River watershed about how to reduce non-point source pollution and keep storm water drains as clean as possible. Storm water, unlike sewer water, is not treated before it goes into the Five Mile River and Long Island Sound.
But the plan also includes recommendations for larger, non-residential properties near the Five Mile River in Norwalk. These include:
Installing a basin to detain and treat storm water at Colonial Gardens by Scribner Avenue and West Cedar Street at an estimated cost of $65,000.
Installing storage and infiltration systems underneath a baseball field at Kendall Elementary School on Fillow Street at an estimated cost of $753,000.
Installing a 33,000-square-foot vegetative buffer, creating pocket wetlands and restoring a stagnant ditch at Oak Hills Park on Charles Marshall Drive at an estimated cost of $436,000.
Installing a 6,000-square-foot vegetative buffer along a ditch and a 1,000-square-foot vegetative buffer adjacent to a tributary at Ledgebrook Condominiums on Gillies Lane at an estimated cost of $5,000.
Retrofitting an existing storm water basin at Costco on Connecticut Avenue at an estimated cost of $23,000. The retrofitting would include restricting outflows from the basin so storm water is retained and excavating the bottom of the basin to provide more retention of storm water.
Excavating a 200-foot by 35-foot section of lawn at River Park on Connecticut Avenue at an estimated cost of $26,000.
Installing a three-foot-deep basin that covers about a half-acre on Norwalk Community College's West Campus to detain and treat stormwater before it reaches the Five Mile River, which is a short walk away. The cost of building the basin was estimated at $60,000 to $150,000.
Installing a basin at Saint John's Cemetery on Richards Avenue at an estimated cost of $65,000.
Installing two to three basins at Fox Run Elementary School on Fillow Street at an estimated cost of $80,000.
The plan, which includes both short-term and long-term goals for reducing pollution in the Five Mile River, identifies a series of potential funding sources for the proposed improvements that include state and federal agencies and grants from foundations.
After the signing ceremony, residents and officials of Norwalk, Darien and New Canaan went on a bus tour that included stops at the New Canaan reservoir, which occasionally spills over into the Five Mile River, and New Canaan's Wastewater Treatment Facility, which discharges treated waste from sewers into the river. Jim Rogers, New Canaan's superintendent of Solid Waste, said 3,200 properties are connected to the sewer system while the remainder is on septic systems.
The plan, developed for the Southwestern Regional Planning Agency and six-member Five Mile River Steering Committee by AKRF of Mt. Laurel, N.J., is funded through a grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, according to Kathleen G. Holland, director of Inland, Wetlands and Watercourses for the town of New Canaan.
"It's a five-year plan and we're going to look and re-evaluate in five years," Cherichetti said. "Five years is our immediate goal."