The MDC owns over 31,000 acres of land in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the majority of which is watershed forest land. A watershed forest is the first line of defense for protecting water from degradation and maintaining high quality drinking water. This land acts as a natural filter and buffer to pollutants and protects the integrity of the District’s drinking water supply reservoirs.
Maintaining the health of the watershed lands for water supply is the principal mission of the District’s Watershed Management Unit. This is accomplished through its source protection and forest management programs.
The MDC’s water comes from surface water sources in watersheds that cover approximately 89.7 square miles. These include the watersheds that feed the 30-billion gallon Barkhamsted Reservoir and the 9.5-billion gallon Nepaug Reservoir in northwestern Connecticut, as well as the smaller watersheds associated with the West Hartford Reservoirs and Reservoir 6.
Although the majority of these watershed areas are relatively rural, which reduces the chance of pollution, the District conducts an aggressive source protection program to further ensure the quality of its water supplies. This is important because the District owns and manages only a portion of the watershed land draining to the reservoirs.
Source water is untreated water that is used to supply public drinking water. Natural processes and human activities that occur within a watershed drainage area can greatly impact the quality of that source water.
The MDC is very fortunate to have heavily forested watersheds, which help safeguard the water supplies by acting as a natural filter and buffer to potential contaminants. A well managed forested watershed is the first line of defense for protecting water from pollution and maintaining high quality drinking water.
Forest lands intercept precipitation, promote water infiltration, reduce storm water runoff, moderate stream flows, recycle nutrients and chemicals, stabilize soils, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation, and provide clean water.
As watersheds become more urbanized and the percentage of impervious surface coverage increases (due to buildings, roads, driveways, and parking areas), stormwater runoff increases, which can transport pollutants and degrade downstream waters. Generally, water quality decreases as the amount of impervious coverage increases within a watershed area.
Water travelling over the surface of the land or through the ground can carry substances such as soil particles, salts, metals, hydrocarbons, bacteria, fertilizers and pesticides that can contaminate water supplies. It is therefore very important to monitor land use activities in the watersheds and protect the water at its source.
The District conducts an annual sanitary survey of watershed properties, which is required by the Connecticut Department of Public Health. The MDC’s watershed inspector visits residences, businesses and farm properties located within the watershed areas to identify conditions that may adversely affect drinking water supplies. The watershed inspector checks for signs of septic system failure, leaking fuel oil tanks, soil erosion and sedimentation issues, illegal discharges, improper storage of chemicals, pesticides and animal wastes, illegal dumping, and other conditions that have the potential to affect water quality.
The District also works closely with watershed towns on land use planning and development issues that may affect water supplies. The MDC’s Watershed Management Unit reviews development proposals that come before watershed towns and when appropriate, submits comments to encourage practices that protect reservoir water quality. Inspections are also conducted during the year to monitor the progress of development projects.
Reservoirs and tributary streams are also routinely sampled and monitored for water quality. Water samples are collected daily and delivered to the MDC’s Water Analysis Laboratory where physical, chemical and biological analyses are conducted to identify potential drinking water contaminants.
One of the most important measures that can be taken to strengthen source protection efforts is to permanently protect watershed lands. The District has made a strong commitment to permanently protect additional watershed lands through the establishment of a Land Acquisition Program and Fund. As a result, several key parcels have been acquired to date.
The District has been engaged in a forest management program since 1940s, when professional foresters were first hired to direct forestry operations. Activities are currently guided by a comprehensive watershed forest management plan. The plan uses an ecosystem approach to management and provides information about watershed geology, soils, wildlife, biodiversity, cultural features, as well as the overall extent and condition of the timber resources. It establishes priorities and guidelines for protecting water quality through activities including: timber harvesting, wildlife management, gravel access road maintenance, controlling disease, insects and non-native invasive species.
Forest management and timber harvesting activities promote the growth and regeneration of a healthy, diverse forest with a variety of tree species, sizes and age classes, and one that is more resilient to disturbance. This reduces the risk that a single catastrophic event such as a hurricane, fire or pest infestation will destroy the entire forest and degrade soils and water quality.
All harvesting operations are carefully planned and supervised by state-certified District foresters to assure strict adherence to contractual stipulations, the Connecticut Forest Practices Act, and municipal inland wetlands and watercourses regulations. Soil erosion and sediment control practices to protect water quality are strictly enforced.
The timber harvested from MDC forest lands is used for producing important consumer products: high quality hardwoods (deciduous trees) for fine furniture, flooring, and veneer; lower quality hardwoods for pallets, crates and boxes, and fuelwood; and softwoods (pine, hemlock and larch) for building materials for homes, barns, bridges and furniture.
The District’s forest lands, combined with adjacent state-owned parcels, represent some of the largest protected, unfragmented tracts of land in Southern New England and serve as important habitat for a variety of flora and fauna in the region. These areas provide corridors for wildlife migration, as evidenced by the growing black bear and moose populations. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection Wildlife Division is conducting long-term studies of bear and moose populations on some of these lands in cooperation with the District.
Through its watershed forest management program, the District strives to promote a diversity of forest cover types, ages, structures and other conditions which help create essential habitat for an array of wildlife species. Strategies for improving wildlife habitat include:
- Protect unique natural features of the landscape, and threatened and endangered species
- Promote healthy stands of evergreen trees for cover and nesting sites
- Release trees that produce food for wildlife (mast), cover and nesting cavities
- Create early successional habitat (patch cuts) favored by many species of birds
- Maintain existing herbaceous openings through periodic mowing
- Leave slash and brush piles from harvesting operations on-site to benefit wildlife
- Protect wetland and riparian areas for cover, nesting and travel corridors
- Protect vernal pools, a unique type of wetland relied upon by many amphibians and macroinvertebrates for breeding and early development
- Maintain artificial nesting structures such as bluebird boxes
- Annually stock trout at designated MDC reservoirs and the Farmington River
A testament to the health of the MDC’s watershed lands is the fact that the first successful nesting of the American Bald Eagle in Connecticut in over 40 years occurred at the Barkhamsted Reservoir. MDC works closely with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and the Bald Eagle Study Group to monitor the growing eagle population.
Disease, insects, fire, wind, drought and air pollution are major disturbances that have the ability to drastically change the structure of forest ecosystems. A healthy forest is one that is resilient to change. Many of the disturbances that occur in the forest are normal and the forest is adapted To accommodate the change. Forests become stressed when their defenses are weakened, for example by drought or acid deposition. In a weakened state they become more susceptible and less resilient to disease and insect attacks. An effective strategy for reducing the impact of large disturbances and preventing sediment loading in reservoirs is to diversify forest types, structures and age classes through active management.
In our increasingly mobile society, the introduction of non-native invasive species is a constant and growing threat. Many invasive species are superior competitors, have fewer predators, form monoculture stands, and spread disease all at the expense of native species. Native species have not evolved alongside the invaders and lack appropriate defenses. Invasive species may be one of the most insidious threats to the health of watershed forests. Management options for controlling invasive species are limited. Prevention of introduction is the best defense.
Several major pests and pathogens have already altered the composition of the forest, such as chestnut blight and red pine scale, which essentially lead to the demise of these once commercially important species. The hemlock woolly adelgid is currently threatening the existence of hemlock in some areas. It is impossible to know when potential threats will reach an area, but early detection will help to control the spread of an outbreak.
It is the responsibility of forest managers to be keenly aware of pests, pathogens and other threats to the forest and to assess the situation and develop management alternatives. This vigilance is enhanced by supporting scientific research on the property, such as studies being conducted by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (www.ct.gov/caes) on emerald ash borer, hemlock woolly adelgid and the pine shoot borer.
Climate change is another factor likely to influence forest development in the future. Warmer temperatures may alter the growing season and the natural ranges of certain species. While some plants may benefit from longer growing seasons, others may not be able to compete and may disappear from the landscape. Changes in temperature may also alter the moisture regime of the region, causing prolonged periods of drought or more erratic weather patterns, which may adversely affect certain species. Recent studies have found that increased levels of carbon dioxide may provide a real boost for vines that are able to take advantage of high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and channel that into leaf growth. As vines reach for the canopy they smother host trees causing the dynamics of the forest to change.