The Naugatuck River Restoration:
A Continuing Success Story

Rivers run through our history and folklore, and link us as a people. 
— Charles Kuralt

A rare look back in time along the Naugatuck River to a Locomotive built in 1960 with cars from 1924-1029:
Published in 2013 on YouTube the FL9NH 2019 heading south on the Naugatuck Railroad, passing under Reynolds Bridge in Thomaston, CT.
The river was running high and fast. Click here for the 2014 Train Schedule.(Courtesy: RMNEphoto)

NaugatuckRiverinWinter_Beacon Falls_Pinesbridge_CourtesyMichaelAKrenesky.JPG

A scenic view of the Naugatuck River in winter, looking downstream from Route 42 (Pines Bridge Road)
in Beacon Falls
.  Photo courtesy of Michael A Krenesky.  

Various partners including federal agencies, state agencies, municipalities, private industries and local citizen organizations from throughout the watershed are engaged in a comprehensive initiative to continue to restore the water quality of the Naugatuck River. Restoration efforts include sewage treatment plant upgrades, dam removal, re-establishment of the river’s riparian buffer, river cleanups, and water quality monitoring. Thanks to the hard work of these dedicated individuals, agencies, towns and organizations, the Naugatuck River is once again teeming with life and opportunity.


A book about three river's: the Housatonic, Shepaug and the Naugatuck. Less than two hours from New York City, two Connecticut rivers running in parallel valleys only a few miles apart have charted the course of American environmental, industrial, and social history, with strikingly different results. Both tributaries of the mighty Housatonic, the Shepaug and the Naugatuck have weathered development for nearly three centuries, but while the Naugatuck has suffered to the point of near-extinction, the Shepaug continues to flow seemingly untouched, offering some of the best fishing in the country. In The Trout Pool Paradox: The American Lives of Three Rivers (Houghton Mifflin, April), George Black tackles the complex story of how this situation came about, in the process presenting a graceful and riveting history of modern America.

Black's attempts to unravel the "trout pool paradox" — that the same fast, cold, clear water that provides the best fly fishing makes a river ideal for the development of environmentally harmful industry — lead him on a journey through the natural and human history of American rivers, from the first mills and settlements to the Industrial Revolution and the modern environmental movement and to the men and women who live on, fish, and work to protect the Housatonic and its tributaries today.

An avid fly fisherman, Black has fished the Shepaug watershed — "the Platonic ideal of a trout stream" — for over a decade. Fifteen miles away runs the Naugatuck, by contrast a "chemical sewer" known more for occasionally catching fire than for its fishing conditions. Puzzled about why these two sister rivers should exist under such dramatically different conditions, and theorizing that as a fisherman he had both motive and opportunity to pursue a greater intimacy with them, Black delved into the geological, biological, economic, and political factors affecting both rivers in an attempt to understand, as he writes, "what needs to be done if our rivers are to remain, or become once again, the kind of place where trout will want to live."

Using the rivers of northwestern Connecticut as a prism through which to view the lives of waterways throughout America, The Trout Pool Paradox explores the sometimes unforeseen ways in which we influence, and are influenced by, the natural world around us. With penetrating insight and the enthusiasm of an avid fly fisherman with an intimate knowledge of the rivers he portrays, Black uncovers the heart of these bustling ecosystems and the middle ground that must be found to save them.

George Black: "I always saw The Trout Pool Paradox as a way of thinking about four hundred years of American history. You could tell a similar story, I suppose, by looking at any continuously settled portion of the country — certainly of New England. But I'd make the case that this one little corner of Connecticut has an unusual amount to tell us about the development of modern American society. To a large extent that's a function of geography. Since the 1700s, three sets of powerful social forces have intersected in the Housatonic Valley: the innovative scientific and practical thinkers who came here from Yale, the literary and theological ideas emanating from Boston, and the social and mercantile elites of New York. I don't think it's stretching a point to say that the origins of the American Industrial Revolution can be traced directly to the Housatonic Valley, indeed, to a particular trout pool on the Naugatuck River, where an associate of Thomas Jefferson's created the country's first true factory city and in the process converted Jefferson to the idea of an industrial rather than an agrarian future." To read about the book and an interview with the author click here. 


Did You Know? 

From 1900 to 1976 the river was essentially lifeless and ranked among the most polluted rivers in the nation! Fortunately, changes in pollution control laws, upgrades to waste water treatment plants, and the decline of the brass industry have led to vast improvements in water quality.  Today the river is once again teeming with fish and wildlife!

Yesterday’s Naugatuck: Battered and Bruised

Beginning in the 1700’s, the Naugatuck Valley became attractive for industrial development. The tributaries and main river was used for industrial water supply (water power) and for the disposal of wastes. Because of its steep gradient, the Naugatuck River was well suited for waterpower and it was developed for this use very early in the history of Connecticut. Industrialization of its valley and use of the river as a receiving stream for municipal sewage, and a wide variety of industrial wastes followed. In 1845, the largest brass mill in the United States was built in the City of Waterbury and by the early 1900s the Naugatuck Valley was one of the principal brass manufacturing regions of the world, a distinction, which remained through the 1960s.

Large quantities of industrial wastes from the brass mills and related metalworking industries, as well as wastes generated by the manufacturing of rubber, synthetic chemicals and textiles, were discharged to the river along with municipal sewage. A report by the state Sewage Commission dated 1899 stated that the Naugatuck River had reached the limit of permissible pollution due to the discharge of industrial wastes and municipal sewage. A subsequent report by the state Board of Health in 1915 described the river as badly polluted throughout its length and listed six municipal and 29 industrial waste sources on the river. This grossly polluted condition was essentially unchanged into the late 1960s and early 1970s.

High Rock Grove adjacent to the Naugatuck Railroad.
Photo Courtesy the Naugatuck Historical Society.

A River Reborn

Citizen groups and communities along the river have played a key role in driving the Naugatuck River Restoration Plan forward. River advocacy groups have conducted river cleanups, fish stocking, revegetation projects, river celebrations and have volunteered to conduct water quality monitoring.

The State of Connecticut has also been a dedicated partner in the reversal of the river’s declining health. The adoption of Connecticut’s Clean Water Act in 1967 and the adoption of the federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972, gave the State the legal authority necessary to finally address water quality degradation in the river. By 1976, through a combination of legal enforcement and the distribution of state and federal grants, all eight municipal wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) discharging to the Naugatuck River had installed secondary waste treatment, ensuring that cleaner, safer water was discharged to the river from these plants. At the same time, industries were required to begin using “best available technology” to treat their wastewaters, leading to further reductions in pollutants entering the river. Many direct discharges of industrial and cooling water to the river were also reduced. More recently, industrial discharges have been reduced even further through the use of wastewater recycling systems which reuse discharges rather than sending them into the river.

Wastewater treatment improvements during the 1970’s, combined with the general decline of the brass industry and closure of other businesses, led to dramatic improvements in the water quality and aesthetics of the Naugatuck River. In the mid 1980s, the Connecticut Department of Energy & the Environment (DEEP, then known as the Department of Environmental Protection) took additional permitting measures based upon the biology of the river to further reduce toxic substances in industrial discharges.

In the late 1980s, the Department adopted a plan to improve the effectiveness of WWTPs in order to meet water quality goals for the river. The plan required upgrades at nearly all of the WWTPs along the river. Upgrades were completed in Seymour in 1992, Torrington in 1994, Naugatuck in 1995, and Waterbury in 2000. Thomaston’s AWT facilities are in the final stages of construction. In Watertown, the Fire District eliminated its discharge to Steele Brook, an important tributary to the Naugatuck, by linking instead to the new Waterbury WWTP, which received its own upgrades as well.

Particular emphasis was placed on improving the Waterbury WWTP, by far the largest wastewater plant on the river. Costing $124 million and taking three years (1997-2000) to construct, this advanced wastewater treatment facility features ammonia removal, total nitrogen removal and ultraviolet light disinfection – upgrades critical to ensuring continued improvements in the health of the Naugatuck River as well as Long Island Sound.

Due to its size, constructing a new WWTP in Waterbury without temporarily impacting the river, proved difficult. A plan was therefore proposed to allow only very limited treatment at the existing facility while the new plant was being built. To compensate for the negative impacts on the river due to not fully treating the sewage during this construction period, CT DEEP, the EPA and the City of Waterbury developed a mitigation plan to enhance water quality and the ecology of the Naugatuck. Among other things, the plan required removal or construction of fish passage facilities at several major dams within the watershed. In addition, eleven areas were selected for planting enhancements, which help improve water quality as well as habitat adjacent to and within the stream.

A committed program of formal enforcement actions for wastewater discharge violations, led to the collection of corporate penalties in excess of $2.5 million.  These funds were reinvested in Supplemental Environmental Projects ("SEPs") throughout the watershed. While many of the SEPs are tied to dam removal and fish passage, SEP monies have also been used to purchase equipment to treat and dispose of grease tank wastes, encourage local river cleanups and for the creation of riverside pocket parks, open space preservation, and public river access. 

To learn more about the Naugatuck River's history and incredible environmental comeback, contact these
river and watershed organizations or the Valley's many historical societies.

Source of Information:

Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.  February 1 2001.  “The Naugatuck River Restoration Project – A Continuing Success Story.” Environmental Compliance in Connecticut.   Report to the Connecticut General Assembly Committee on the Environment.  

Gregorski, Bob.  2009.  "Naugatuck River History."  Naugatuck River Watershed Association (NRWA) website. 

Last revised 04/10/2012

Special thanks to our sponsors:
Naugatuck Savings Bank, Connecticut Community Foundation
Union Savings Bank, Wesson Energy, Inc., The United Illumination Company, Friends of Naugatuck River
The Platt Brothers & Company, Thomaston Savings Bank, Valley Community Foundation