Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar didn't go to San Antonio to designate a river as America's first National Blueway, a new conservation and recreation program. He came to Hartford.
That's not a knock on San Antonio. The River Walk along the San Antonio River is Texas' most popular tourist destination. Hotels, restaurants, bars and shops open up to the River Walk. It's such a fun atmosphere that Connecticut visitors to San Antonio often come home hoping that we could do something similar here.
But the powerful Connecticut River, which drains over 11,250 square miles of New England's forests and mountains, has a personality that's very different from the laid-back San Antonio River. For one thing, a flood bypass channel, built as a WPA project in the 1930s, diverts rising waters and keeps the San Antonio River at a consistent level. As a result, development has safely located just steps from the water. The Connecticut, on the other hand, floods regularly and extensively — so the kind of commercial development that works so well in San Antonio is not feasible on our riverfront.
On the plus side, the threat of flooding means we'll always have a public greenway on both banks of the river — open and accessible to everyone.
When Salazar made his announcement at the Riverfront Boathouse in June, he said: "Healthy and accessible rivers are the lifeblood of our communities and power our economies."
He noted that communities and public-private partnerships along the 410-mile Connecticut River have a long history of working to improve the river's health and accessibility. And they've made great strides.
The Connecticut River has become remarkably healthier over the past three decades, thanks to the Clean Water Act, increased public awareness and initiatives by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Metropolitan District Commission. An abundant fish population is thriving, along with egrets, herons and eagles.
Improved accessibility makes it possible for people to return to the river, too. Riverfront Recapture has worked since 1981 to restore public access to the river — access that had been cut off by I-91 and flood walls. There's more work to do, but parks and riverwalks in Hartford and East Hartford are available — and fully accessible.
Our riverfront provides inviting places where close to a million people a year enjoy recreational activity in an urban oasis, a beautiful natural setting on the edge of downtown. That sets us apart from a lot of urban river cities.
On that best little river in Texas, you'll find rubber duck races and water taxis. We've got activities that need a lot of water: dragon boat races, rowing regattas, bass fishing tournaments, excursion boats.
And when's the last time that an early-morning visitor to San Antonio's riverwalk watched a bald eagle swoop out of the sky to catch a fish? Our rowers, who are out on the river every day, see that sight on a regular basis.
Our community rowing program offers tracks for adults and high school students. Some row for the fun of it. More competitive types participate in races in Connecticut and other states, including our own rowing regatta that attracts more than 2,500 rowers from across the Northeast.
There are opportunities to enjoy the arts on our Riverfront, too. The Lincoln Financial Sculpture Walk extends along the Founders Bridge promenade and riverwalks on both banks. Free festivals showcase the capital region's cultural heritage with music and dance — at a venue that greatly enhances the experience. With a moonlit river as the backdrop for classical guitarist Daniel Salazar and the Hartford Symphony, for example, the downtown riverfront becomes one of Connecticut's most romantic locations.
Our flood-prone riverfront will never be lined with hotels, restaurants, shops and bars. And we've embraced that reality as an advantage because we think we're getting the best of both worlds. The parks along the river are thriving while Hartford and East Hartford investment moves as close to the parks as possible.
The beauty of riverfront projects across the world lies in their distinctiveness, as communities accept the natural characteristics of their rivers, adapt to them and celebrate their differences. It makes for a much more interesting world.
Joe Marfuggi is the executive director of Riverfront Recapture
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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