That's the first question Mary Rickel Pelletier hears from Hartford residents curious about the fate of Hartford's long-buried waterway. Pelletier is director of the Park River Watershed Revitalization Initiative, a group of eco-activists, designers and engineers eager to see the river brought back to life.
The answer, according to state officials and even some activists like Pelletier, may be never. Or at least not anytime soon. Not surprisingly, the reason comes down to dollars and cents.
"Barring all money concerns, anything is possible," Pelletier said. "But the political issues and the feasibility - that's the issue at stake."
In 2006, voters approved an $800 million project to separate storm drains from sewers in Greater Hartford. But while one of the central goals of the Metropolitan District Commission's Clean Water Project is to remove waste from the area's natural waterways, not a dime can be spent legally on beautification projects beyond improving sewer infrastructure, according to William Hogan, a water bureau official in the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
"We cannot plunder that $800 million and move it away," Hogan said at a symposium on the future of the Park River held at Trinity College this week. "The referendum was very specific. The MDC does not have the legal right to use that money for other purposes."
The Park River once ran next to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, meandered around the Capitol and headed to the West End. Most waterways in Hartford, New Britain and West Hartford flow into two branches of the Park River, which run through tunnels under Hartford and ultimately feed into the Connecticut River.
The actual cost of uncovering the Park River would be in the "hundreds of millions," according to Robert Weimar, an MDC official and chief manager of the Clean Water Project. And that's hundreds of millions that city, state and federal sources have not offered.
Skeptical environmentalists point to projects such as the "daylighting" of the Providence River in Rhode Island as proof that engineering can revitalize even the most abused waterway. To reclaim the river, the city of Providence removed 1,150 feet of roadway, asphalt, and concrete.
"Sure it's possible to bring the river out and make it viable again," said George Frick, a Middletown environmental activist who showed up at the Park River conference with a canoe strapped to his car. "There are people doing things that are unbelievable. There's always a way."
But Pelletier, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, said comparisons to the Providence project are off-base.
"The level of expense of uncovering this river would be double," Pelletier said.
A more feasible goal is focusing on rehabilitating parts of the river that are already exposed to daylight, Pelletier said. Talks are already underway between the city and MDC officials about tapping Gully Brook to open up a series of ponds in Bushnell Park, though the question of who would fund the project is up in the air, Weimar said.
"It would be more valuable to Hartford's future if they invest in those kinds of things," Pelletier said. "Unless we build the appreciation for living, healthy rivers, nobody's going to want to uncover the river."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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