Quinnipiac River
Drainage Basin: South Central Coast

1. About this Watershed

Quinnipiac River
The Quinnipiac River originates at the borders of New Britain and Farmington in Deadwood Swamp, a Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) wildlife management and flood control area. The river flows southward for 38 miles to New Haven Harbor where it empties into Long Island Sound. With a drainage area of 165 square miles, the Quinnipiac River Watershed is situated primarily within the towns of New Britain, Plainville, Southington, Cheshire, Meriden, Wallingford, Hamden, North Haven and New Haven. Other watershed towns include Farmington, Bristol, Wolcott, Prospect, North Branford and East Haven. Major tributaries are the Eight Mile River, Southington; Ten Mile River, Cheshire; Harbor Brook, Meriden; and the Muddy River, Wallingford. Two major impoundments on the river are Hanover Pond, Meriden and Hamlin Pond, Plainville.

1a. Map of Watershed

2. Geology

The Quinnipiac River basin was formed some 200 million years ago during the late-Triassic and early-Jurrasic geologic periods [2]. As the large land mass (composed of present-day North America, Europe and Africa) began to slowly drift apart and separate, the center of the state subsided and formed the Connecticut Valley. Over millions of years, erosive forces carried sediments from the metamorphic rocks of the adjacent uplands down into the basin.
About 3 million years ago, glaciers crept into the area from the north and scoured the landscape as they passed. The glaciers deposited mixed sediments composed of rocks, clays, silts and sands, forming glacial "till" [2]. Water from the melting ice flowed under glaciers in channels and depressions -- as the climate warmed and the last of the glaciers retreated about 22,000 years ago, the glaciel melt-waters deposited additional sediments in the river valleys and depressions.

Evidence of these geologic processes can be observed today throughout the Quinnipiac River basin.

3. Hydrology

Average annual streamflow is 299 cubic feet per second (cfs) and minimum dry weather flow is 45 cfs. The river is influenced by the rise and fall of the tide for a distance of approximately 14 miles from its mouth. It loses 350 feet in elevation from its origin to its tidewaters. [3]

4. History

"Quinnipiac" is a word that was used by Native Americans to describe the river and the area that is now New Haven Harbor. Roughly translated, it means "long water land" referring to the extensive tidal estuary that still characterizes the southern portion of the river. New Haven Harbor is the most active commercial harbor in the state and the third most utilized in New England. The basin was settled and industrialized during the colonial period and is still known for its chemical and metalworking industries.

Adrian Block, a European who sailed to Connecticut in 1614, is said by the Connecticut Water Trails Association [4] to be the first person to discover the Quinnipiac Algonquians. He did not settle in Connecticut, but he did however start the trade between the Dutch and the Quinnipiac Algonquians. In 1638, many Englishmen came to Connecticut to settle. There were several hundred people that were led by Reverend John Davenport, naming what is now known to us as “New Haven” in 1640.
Paralleling the west bank of the Quinnipiac River through the entire length of Quinnipiac River State Park in North Haven is the Quinnipiac Trail.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the river suffered from severe pollution problems because of the presence of heavy industry and population centers in its watershed. The Quinnipiac was the subject of the first ever pollution control measure in the state of Connecticut. In 1886, the state general assembly passed a measure prohibiting the City of Meriden from discharging raw sewage into the river. In 1891, the act resulted in the building of state's first sewage treatment plant. Nevertheless, by 1914, the State Board of Health reported that the major fish life had largely disappeared from its mouth. The pollution has been somewhat abated by the passage of the Connecticut Clean Water Act of 1967, and by the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, which provided the legal authority to take measures to clean up the river's watershed. The measures included the construction of advanced waste management facilities for sewage and industrial waste. Levels of copper in the river have decreased 70% since the 1980s and are now comparable to other reference streams in Connecticut. Combined sewer overflows from the City of New Haven are still regarded as a major problem for the estuary. [4]

5. Human Use & Impact

Water Pollution Control
The history of water pollution control activities in Connecticut began on the Quinnipiac River which was the subject of the first recorded pollution control legislation. A special act passed by the state general assembly in 1886 prohibited the City of Meriden from discharging raw sewage into the river and resulted in construction of the state's first sewage treatment plant in 1891.[1]

Still, by 1914 a report by the State Board of Health described the river as polluted, especially near it's mouth where major fish life had "practically disappeared." The river was being impacted by 71 untreated industrial discharges and sewage from several municipalities.

Connecticut's Clean Water Act of 1967 and the federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 established the legal authority necessary to initiate water quality restoration in the Quinnipiac River. This legislation, coupled with the availability of state and federal water pollution control grants, resulted in the installation of secondary level municipal waste treatment and equivalent levels of industrial waste treatment based on best available technology.

General water quality improvements followed the wastewater treatment boom of the late 1960's and early 70's. However, water quality studies conducted by DEP a decade later indicated that the river's natural assimilative capacity was still being exceeded by the daily discharge of 40 million gallons of treated municipal sewage. To provide sufficient levels of dissolved oxygen and reduce toxic ammonia levels, an additional level of municipal waste treatment was required at all five municipal sewage treatment facilities.

The first municipal advanced waste treatment (AWT) plant on the Quinnipiac River became operational in Southington in 1984. AWT was installed during subsequent years at Cheshire, Meriden, Wallingford, and North Haven. Approximately 230 million dollars has been expended for municipal advanced treatment in the watershed. By the year 2000, nutrient removal will be reduced by 66%, thereby improving water quality in the Quinnipiac River and Long Island Sound.

The Quinnipiac Estuary however, is still subject to impairment from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) from the City of New Haven. CSOs occur during storm events or periods of high ground water and result in the discharge of untreated sewage directly to a waterbody, such as New Haven Harbor. A facilities plan is in place for the design and implementation of corrective action. The process is currently (1997) underway and will be ongoing.

There are a total of 13 major treated wastewater discharges and over 200 minor discharges (which include stormwater, cooling water, and ground water reclamation) to the Quinnipiac River Watershed. An intensive DEP effort has been made to register all industrial facilities greater than five acres for a stormwater general permit. This permit process requires a facility to develop and adhere to best management practices (BMPs) to minimize polluted stormwater runoff. Monitoring is also required by the permit.


Water Quality Concerns
Recent monitoring indicates significant improvement of dissolved oxygen, indicator bacteria, phosphorus and heavy metal levels. Water quality monitoring data from the DEP and United States Geological Survey (USGS) documents a decrease of 70% in the average concentration of copper since the 1974-1984 base period at Quinnipiac River monitoring locations. Currently, average copper concentrations in the Quinnipiac are comparable to the 4.8 parts per billion average concentration typical for Connecticut reference streams which support healthy biological communities.

The estuary is extremely productive as seed oysters from New Haven Harbor provide over half of Connecticut's total oyster harvest. A 1995 study suggests that edible meat from blue crabs caught in the Quinnipiac River poses no human health risk.

Despite tremendous improvement over the past thirty years with the implementation of point source controls, water quality goals for the Quinnipiac River are still not being met. In most sections, the biological community is characterized by a general lack of sensitive species and a low degree of diversity.

Remaining work primarily includes implementing non-point source controls, maintaining compliance for point source discharges, and correcting residual toxicity problems. Impairment remains due to high levels of indicator bacteria, stormwater runoff, landfill leachate, streamflow withdrawal, and industrial and municipal discharges. Fish passage is needed at Wallace Dam in Wallingford and at Hanover Pond Dam in Meriden to restore anadromous fish populations.

Watershed Initiative
In order to attain higher levels of water quality, the DEP has chosen the Quinnipiac Watershed as the target for a pilot watershed project. Tributaries to the mainstem and land use within the 165 square mile watershed will be included in the project since they affect conditions in the mainstem and ultimately Long Island Sound.

In 1994, a member of the DEP, Bureau of Water Management, Permitting, Enforcement and Remediation Division (PERD) field staff was assigned full time to the Quinnipiac River Watershed. An innovative use of field staff time, the watershed inspector performed non-traditional activities such as industrial surveys of non-permitted facilities, stormwater inspections, visual surveys of the river and its tributaries, and working with the Quinnipiac River Watershed Association (QRWA) and town officials.[5]

DEP and various stakeholders, including municipalities, regional planning agencies, soil and water conservation districts, the QRWA, Yale University, EPA, water utilities, industries and other interested parties within the watershed are working in partnership to develop a watershed management plan. These organizations have identified flooding, lack of public access, trash and illegal dumping, poor water quality, and poor land use planning as some of the challenges facing the watershed. Additional concerns include water diversions and over-allocation, habitat restoration, remediation of residual industrial pollution, encouragement of resource appreciation, and greater awareness of non-point source pollution.

6. Flora (Plants)

According to the Quinnipiac River Watershed Association River Resources Education Series, habitats in the Quinnipiac watershed have been shaped by the geology of the basin and by patterns of human development. A wide variety of habitats, each supporting different plant and animal communities are found along stream corridors and water bodies, in urban and suburban areas, brush-land and farmland, in wetlands and along forested ridges.

For more information on Flora and Fauna of Quinnipiac River, go to Quinnipiac River Watershed Association

7. Fauna (Animals)

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8. Lesson Plans & Field Studies

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9. Personal Stories

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10. Community Groups

The Habitat Work Group of the Quinnipiac Watershed Partnership (Q.R.W.P.) working closely with the Q.R.W.A. Adopt-the-River Program, was formed in June 1998 to address issues of habitat protection and restoration. One of their goals is to promote protection of existing unfragmented open space areas with greenway connections. Stream and watershed monitoring data is being used to argue for more rigorous wetlands protection and better sedimentation controls, and to identify potential restoration sites. Breeding bird data documents not only high bird diversity, including fragmentation-sensitive species, but also high bird densities in our large wetland systems. Monitoring data also supports the need torestore brushy and meadow-type habitat, and wooded corridors along waterways. To restore and protect aquatic habitat, watershed work groups must work with local and state officials to address the land use issues which generate sediment and polluted runoff.

11. Recreation

Although underutilized, the Quinnipiac River can offer some wonderful recreational opportunities. The DEP and QRWA stock trout in the Quinnipiac Gorge along the Cheshire/Meriden town line. A canoeable trail, established by the QRWA, affords easy access to the river. In addition, Quinnipiac River State Park, Wharton Brook State Park, and the extensive salt marsh area are accessible for boating, hunting, and bird watching. Many anadromous and migratory fish species, such as river herring, striped bass and blue fish, can be found in the estuary.

12. Related Links

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13. Notes/Sources

[1] Department of Environmental Protection
[2] Canoe and Natural Resource Guide to the Quinnipiac River
[3] The Quinnipiac River Watershed and Region Geographic Information System
[4] Connecticut Water Trails Association
[5] Quinnipiac River Water Association