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Woog's World / Westport's Old Man River just keeps rolling ... and rivers are the better for it

Published 8:57 am, Saturday, August 10, 2013
  • Dick Harris, director of Earthplace's Harbor Watch program, sits on the prow of "Annie," the group's research boat last year. Photo: File Photo / Westport News

    Dick Harris, director of Earthplace's Harbor Watch program, sits on the prow of "Annie," the group's research boat last year.

    Photo: File Photo

 

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Dick Harris moved to Westport in 1978. He was a district manager for Shell Oil, which transferred him here. Little did he know that would be his last move. Or that -- after retiring in 1992 -- he's still using his environmental skills and passion to help keep the area's waterways healthy and sound.

Harris's undergraduate major was English (at Middlebury College). But he was always interested in science. Shell paid for his environmental degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

When Harris moved to this area, he was appalled to find fishing areas in danger. Waters were polluted; large chunks of concrete marred the way. Looking to help, he spoke with his longtime friend and Westport Nature Center advocate Pete Fraboni. Harris mentioned that he'd taught courses on river and marshland ecology for many years, at Fairfield University's summer school and through Connecticut's Cooperate Educational Services.

Harris began taking oxygen readings. He found there was virtually no oxygen in the middle of Norwalk Harbor. As a result, fish were dying in large numbers.

Harris, Fraboni and two volunteers started monitoring the harbor, on a 16-foot dory. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection noticed their work. In 1986, the DEP asked the small group to work with the state organization.

Soon, the DEP asked Harris and his crew to monitor nearby rivers. The DEP provided training, and in 1993 -- a year after retiring -- Harris began working in Sasco Brook.

In order to get their expenses paid, they needed to write a government-approved quality assurance plan. That step usually sends volunteers screaming away. But the DEP helped Harris write the plan. The state worked closely with this private group, and results soon showed.

The DEP moved Harris and his volunteers to the Norwalk River. They were so successful in identifying problems -- and helping devise solutions -- to the river's ill health that when the DEP wanted to move them to the Saugatuck River, residents along the Norwalk howled in protest. Harris and his group had identified numerous polluting cesspools and septic systems. Using gentle persuasion and educational methods, rather than pressure tactics, the volunteers got polluters (many of whom had no idea what they'd been doing) to make repairs.

Sixteen years later, Harris is still on the Norwalk River.

But he's added plenty to his portfolio. The group has branched out to the Saugatuck and Aspetuck rivers in Westport and Weston, as well as the Silvermine River, the Pequonnock and others.

With the DEEP (the new name for the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection), they monitor bottom fish in Norwalk Harbor. Despite their hard work they've seen populations plummet, and the number of species decline. They're working in the harbor with Wilton High School students, who man the boat and serve as the youngest presenters at biannual flatfish conferences around the state.

In the midst of all this, Harris set up a bacterium laboratory at Earthplace (the new name for the Nature Center). He got it certified -- and added a second, government-certified lab too. The labs have partnered with Pesticide-Free New Canaan, an organization devoted to minimizing or eradicating the use of chemical pesiticides and fertilizers on lawns and fields, and a similar group in Milford.

At Earthplace, Harris helps train students from Staples, Wilton, New Canaan and other area high schools. It's a competitive process. Youngsters interested in marine or freshwater science apply for spots. After interviews, the top 15 are chosen. Divided into teams of three, they work for an entire school year

Each group is assigned a river. They analyze it weekly, for bacteria, oxygen, nutrients and other signs of health. They write a scientific paper -- with help from Harris, of course -- and in May present it at a public Water Quality Symposium at Earthplace.

About six years ago, Harris started examining storm drains in Saugatuck and Norwalk Harbors. Working at discharge points, he and fellow volunteers looked for problems. They found six major leaks entering Norwalk waters -- and got them fixed.

"This has gotten much bigger than I ever expected," Harris says in his low-key way. "Clean water is very important. It affects everything from oyster beds, to the health of entire rivers."

So how does Westport measure up, in terms of awareness and action?

"It's very good," he says. "Steve Edwards (director of public works) and Alicia Mozian (conservation director) are very supportive of what we do.

"We've worked with them on Sherwood Mill Pond, Dead Man's Brook and Sasco Brook. They're materially cleaner now. Whenever we find something, they fix it."

He cited Fairfield County Hunt Club as a model for a private organization. "They've spent a lot of money repairing their systems," Harris says. "The result is cleaner water all around."

Of course, with no small thanks due -- all across Fairfield County -- to Dick Harris himself.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.