The goal of this ecological planning effort is to establish a framework for the systematic development of a comprehensive restoration plan for the enhancement, restoration, use, and management of the Ash Creek estuary.
Ash Creek is one of Connecticut’s few remaining ecologically significant tidal estuaries within a densely populated urban area. Many urban tidal estuaries have been destroyed by development or are in such poor condition that they cannot provide habitats for migrating birds, wading birds, seed oysters, hard shell clams, or finfish. This also significantly diminishes opportunities for valuable vegetation like saltmarsh cordgrass to grow. The presence of these species within cities not only offers residents and visitors a unique ecological experience, but also provides a foothold for the future regeneration of crucial ecosystem services.
Ash Creek, in contrast, provides a tremendous number of ecological benefits. The Ash Creek tidal estuary serves as a wildlife sanctuary for nesting birds, shellfish, and finfish. It is also a breeding ground for horseshoe crabs, and an important area for seed oyster and hard shell clam beds. The estuary’s location along the Atlantic Flyway makes it a prime stopover and feeding location for migratory shorebirds along the Connecticut shoreline.
In addition to its wildlife and plant habitat, the estuary provides opportunities for human recreation such as walking, nature watching, kayaking, and non-mechanized boating. It serves as flood control for surrounding areas and captures some upstream pollutants prior to their infiltration into Long Island Sound. It lessens and detoxifies pollutant loads before they enter the Sound. Its tidal wetland vegetation stabilizes the shoreline and prevents erosion. The St. Mary's sand spit buffers the estuary and the neighboring community from wave action during storms. The estuary also provides an aesthetic identity to the surrounding neighborhoods and serves as landmark open space. These culturally important services improve the quality of life in the local community and, in turn, enhances local property values.
Ash Creek is also an important part of the local heritage and community. From its earlier colonial uses as a mill site and an avenue for transportation, to its current use for commercial oystering and community open space, the estuary has always served as a place of communion between the local community and its natural resources.
Currently, several local schools use the estuary for environmental education. In Fairfield, the non-profit Mill River Wetland Committee has developed the River-Lab Program to provide classroom materials and activities for students, extensive training for study-trip guides, and professional development for teachers. The program uses outdoor activities to help students from Osborne Hill and Fairfield Middle School discover the principles of river basin systems and their inter-relationships with other important natural systems and with humans. In Bridgeport, the Black Rock School, St. Ann’s School, the Aquaculture school, and others also use the estuary for environmental education.
To add further complexity, the estuary is bisected by the Fairfield-Bridgeport municipal boundary. This political division creates challenges, complications, and opportunities regarding local planning and management of the creek.
Until recently, traditional planning efforts have been primarily tailored to the natural resources physically located within one municipality or the other. Although Bridgeport and Fairfield have addressed Ash Creek in one form or another in their open space planning (e.g. the City of Bridgeport Open Space Master Plan, the Town of Fairfield Multiple Use Management Plan for Coastal Open Space), these planning documents tend to be specific to their municipal boundaries and rarely consider the estuary as a unified whole.
The practical implications of Ash Creek being shared by two municipalities have long been recognized. The Ash Creek Conservation Association was formed as a unifying organization to protect and preserve the estuary. As such, the Association is ideally situated, and uniquely qualified, to be a bridge between the two municipalities and therefore play a central role in developing and coordinating planning efforts for the estuary.
More recent planning efforts have attempted to move beyond the municipal boundaries. Notable efforts include the educational and advisory activities of the Ash Creek Conservation Association, and the currently-in-progress Rooster River watershed planning effort. Ash Creek, although part of the greater Rooster River watershed, is located downstream of the Rooster River, and connects the Rooster River to Long Island Sound. A comprehensive restoration plan for Ash Creek will serve as a contribution and a compliment to the Rooster River planning effort.
One Nature's preliminary study, generously funded by the Fairfield County Community Foundation, by the Watershed Assistance Small Grants Program conducted in association with the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act as administered by Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, and by professional pro bono contributions, is intended to establish a trajectory towards a comprehensive strategy for the restoration, use, and management of the estuary. It is intended as a starting point, a way to organize thinking and concerns about the estuary, a point of departure for understanding what is known about the estuary and what still needs to be known, and a road map for further action.