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East Lyme - Brought there by federal stimulus dollars, the excavators, sheet pile driver, hard-hatted workers and steel and concrete structures have come to the rescue of the thousands of herring who pass through Rocky Neck State Park every year.
Last fall, two poorly designed, badly corroded metal culvert pipes that had been in place since the 1970s clogged with sand and began to collapse, potentially choking off access to Bride Brook for the 75,000 alewife and blueback herring who depend on it to get to and from Bride Lake, their ancestral spawning area, in the spring and fall.
The brook begins three miles north of the park at the lake, a water-supply reservoir for the town, then travels through 60 acres of brackish marshes in the park before flowing under the beach to empty into Long Island Sound at the park's east end. The system supports the second-largest run in the state for herring, important feeder fish for flounder, striped bass and other species. The largest is in the Connecticut River.
On Tuesday, officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection, two federal agencies and the private nonprofit group Save the Sound, a program of The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, gathered at the site to show off the $510,000 project under way. The aging pipes are being replaced with a concrete-and-steel-box culvert that will open up healthier water flows between Bride Brook and the Sound, and make that part of the beach safer for the hundreds who use it.
"This project is happening just in the nick of time," said Christopher Cryder, director of habitat restoration for Save the Sound. "The pipes collapsed this fall, so the herring run would not have been able to happen this spring."
Historically low levels
The project, which he said will be completed by the end of January, will not only improve the spring herring run - potentially increasing it from recent counts of 75,000 fish to historic highs estimated at 125,000 - but will also restore healthier tidal flows to the marshes, he said. A favorite bait fish, herring are at historically low levels, and the herring fishery has been closed in the state for the past several years.
The DEP did preliminary studies and design work on the project in 2005, but didn't have the funds for the construction phase, said Amey Marrella, DEP commissioner.
"It was in terrible shape," she said of the old culvert. "This was something we needed to do. Now, this will be one more asset to our parks."
In partnership with Save the Sound, the National Fish & Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the DEP was able to tap federal stimulus funds provided through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fund the work.
Jim Turek, assistant northeast team leader for NOAA's restoration center, said the project met stimulus funding criteria because it was "shovel-ready," with the studies and design work done, and would help restore a fish population crucial to the health of commercial and recreational fisheries. In addition, it kept people at work. Up to 80 workers were employed in this and another project that received stimulus funds, on the West River in New Haven, he said.
NOAA "saw a tie between the environment and the economy," said Curt Johnson, program director for Save the Sound.
Marrella noted that Rocky Neck, one of the most heavily used state parks, has a long history of economic stimulus projects. During the Great Depression, the unemployed were put to work building the pavilion at the west end of the beach. Last summer, high school students hired under a state program painted one of the bathhouses.