East Lyme - The dozen volunteers who shoveled dirt and hauled trees and shrubs along the muddy hillside at Veterans Memorial Park Tuesday probably wouldn't have picked a rainy, drizzly day for their project, but the conditions were, in one way, perfect for the occasion.
"When I got here, you could just see how the water was running," said Judy Rondeau, Niantic River Watershed coordinator. "The basic problem here is erosion. The grass just isn't strong enough to hold this hillside together."
The purpose of the project - which took 11 volunteers from Dominion as well as Rondeau, a town public works crewman operating a backhoe and Greg Decker, a Dominion employee who is also vice president of the Friends of Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve - was to turn the eroded hillside into what environmental professionals call a riparian buffer.
Native plants, including juniper trees and bayberry and serviceberry shrubs, were planted on the hillside to stabilize it and prevent sediment from being carried into Clark Pond, at its base, and ultimately into the Niantic River. Large rocks were brought to the site to designate a walking path along the hill to connect to the trailhead at the 490-acre Oswegatchie preserve.
"This is the gateway to the preserve, and the goal is to make it attractive," Decker said. "It's like your curb appeal."
The project is being funded with $2,500 from Dominion and $1,000 from the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund, Decker said. The volunteers included three retirees of the Millstone Power Station, current employees of the plant's environmental lab, and three Dominion employees from the company's plants elsewhere in New England.
Meredith Simas, supervisor of environmental regulations for Dominion, said the company made this the year's New England stewardship project, with employees using some of the eight volunteer hours per year Dominion allows them to spend on community projects of their choice.
In the fall, Decker said, the volunteers will return to clear the pond's shoreline of invasive bittersweet and multiflora rose, replacing them with highbush blueberry, dogwood and other native species, and seeding the hillside with a wildflower-and-grass mix that sinks down deeper roots than the turf grass that grows there now. Though it's man-made - created to provide ice in the days before refrigeration - the pond provides good habitat for wood ducks and other wildlife, he said, and was once a popular skating spot.
"It's an ice pond, and it's always been shallow," he said. "There's a rock in the middle called engagement rock, because people used to get engaged there when they were skating."
With its well-used ball fields, Veterans Memorial Park will serve as a good location for a project to show the public how erosion can be controlled and tell the story of the sediment problems that afflict the Niantic River, Rondeau said. Water and sediment in the pond, created by the damming of Clark Pond Brook, ultimately flow into Smith Cove and then into the river. Adding more riparian buffers at waterways that flow into the river is one of the key recommendations in a plan to improve water quality in the river, she noted.
"We'll use this as a demonstration project, putting up signs to explain riparian buffers and erosion control," Rondeau said. "Folks can see this and replicate it at home."