“For good or bad, we are the mouth of the Connecticut river. So everything that is happening upstream is going to impact us,” said Kelsey Wentling, the new Connecticut-based river steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy. “We need to be engaged with groups and communities all throughout the watershed in order to make an impact. It’s a challenge and an opportunity.”
Wentling moved to Middletown in September to take on the river steward role.
“Personally, I am really interested in figuring out how CRC can participate in opening up access to the river, not just physically, but inviting more different types of people to be able to access this resource,” Wentling said.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has a responsibility of ensuring that “no segment of the population should, because of its racial or economic makeup, bear a disproportionate share of the risks and consequences of environmental pollution or be denied equal access to environmental benefits.”
“Boating and fishing and enjoying the river should be available to everyone,” Wentling said. “It is a really formative experience for a lot of people in terms of creating other stewards of the river and environment.”
Connecticut is the only state where the river flows directly through the state capital.
“Having this central natural resource is a starting point for connecting all communities with the environment,” Wentling said, “I’m excited to see how we can involve all the different types of communities in our programs and just getting outside.”
Wentling said she is going to start by reaching out to communities that DEEP classifies as Environmental Justice Communities. Within the watershed, these include East Hartford, Hartford, East Windsor, Middletown, Wethersfield and Westbrook. Her goal is to help residents of these communities connect with the river, not only to experience its beauty, but to take ownership of its protection.
“As a person of privilege, I’m not the authority on this. I’m trying to figure out who I should connect with and talk to on this. I’m starting by reaching out to the municipalities and non-profits already working in the communities,” Wentley said. “I’m working on convening these voices.”
Wentling began her work in the Connecticut River this past summer with CRC’s source to sea project. For her, it is one of the best ways not only to connect with the river, but to make a measurable impact.
“Waste removal is a pretty high priority for me. It’s an easy way to see positive or negative impact on the river,” Wentling said. “When you pick up a bottle, you can think this could’ve been mine — I bought a Diet Coke the other day. I don’t really know what happened to it in the end. At the same time, you’re picking it up and cleaning it up and making a measurable impact.”
In addition to environmental justice communities, Wentley said a priority for her is bringing in new voices to the discussion on invasive species in the river.
“I’m working to figure out a way to incorporate boat owners and marinas because they will be increasingly impacted by invasive species,” she said. “For a long time there has been a disconnect between conservation organizations and marinas, but it makes sense for us to work together.”
More often than not, environmental groups see motorboat owners as part of the problem, Wentley said, but invasive species are impacting their use of the river too.
“There are parts of the river that motorboats can no longer go because the hydrilla has become so thick,” Wentley said. “We need their help in the cleanup. It is a lot faster if you have people on a motorboat pulling up water chestnuts than a single kayaker. You need to be low to the water to pull it out, but once you have the bag full it is really challenging.”
Wentley said she is beginning discussions with the Marine Trade Association in Essex as well as marinas up and down the watershed.
In addition to invasive species, making contact with marinas and boat owners will help in CRC’s effort to reduce the use of polystyrene docks.
“Styrofoam docks break apart and wildlife consumes them, we are advocating for alternatives,” Wentley said. “But we need marinas to sign on to help us with this effort.”
As just one person representing CRC in Connecticut, Wentley said that her job is mostly about building relationships and mobilizing people with a stake in the river’s wellbeing to take a more active role.
For projects led by municipalities or the state, Wentley attends meetings, asks questions and keeps tabs on progress to make sure projects stick to a timeline.
“I am pushing to make sure these projects actually happen on the timetable they said it would,” Wentley said.