Joel Barlow High School seniors Stephan Dow and Michael Waugh have grown up fly fishing on the Mill River in Easton, and over the years, they gradually noticed an accumulation of garbage in the area.
So when it came time for the boys to choose a senior advocacy project — the purpose of which is to raise awareness for a cause — they did not hesitate; they decided to organize a river cleanup.
Working for three and a half hours on the morning of Sunday, April 8, they organized a committee of volunteers who picked up and disposed of 360 pounds of trash from one square mile off the bank and surrounding areas of the Mill River.
The Mill River is a 16-mile trout river that runs from the bottom of the Easton reservoir to Long Island Sound and along South Park Avenue.
It contains wild brook and brown trout, and is the only Class 1 tailwater river in Connecticut, according to Stephan. In March, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection extended the Wild Trout Management Area on the river, which protects the native fish, south to the Merritt Parkway.
“This river flows out of the bottom of the Easton reservoir,” said Stephan, 18, of Easton. “This water is cold year-round, and that’s important for the trout because they require cold water to live.”
Stephan and Michael have fished at the Mill River for at least seven years.
“We go two to three times a month throughout the year, and during the summer months, we go twice a week,” said Michael, 18, also of Easton.
“The trash in and along the river had become an eyesore,” Michael added. “Also, pollutants have the potential to leak into the water.”
Both boys are involved in the Nutmeg Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a non-profit conservation organization. They have participated in several similar cleanup projects in the past.
They began planning their project in mid-January. Planning included getting volunteers and deciding which section of river to clean up.
To spread the word about the project, the boys created and distributed posters around the school, and posted messages on Facebook.
On the morning of the cleanup, the boys were “a little nervous about the weather because it was supposed to snow that morning,” Stephan said. “We got very lucky that it didn’t.”
Volunteers, made up of Barlow students and parents, as well as other members of the community, cleaned up one square mile of the Mill River, on South Park Avenue and Buck Hill.
The boys chose that spot because “it’s right next to the road,” Stephan said. “It leads to the Merritt and gets you to Main Street in Trumbull, so that is a pivotal interaction.”
During the cleanup, volunteers — dressed in long sleeves, pants and jackets — spread out over the area, searching for garbage.
“The trash was mainly found on the banks of the river,” Stephan said. However, at one point, he went into the river with his waders and covered 700 to 800 feet.
Garbage that was picked up by the group included a truck tire, bottles, cans, plastic bags, electrical boxes, DVDs, fence posts, and pieces of steel and other metals.
“We filled over 20 bags,” Stephan said.
All the garbage was placed into large black bags and sent to the Redding transfer station at Hopewell Woods Road.
“It’s really cool knowing I made a difference in keeping the river clean, especially since the trout are in tough circumstances in Connecticut from pollution and declining habitat area,” Michael said.
Mike Santangeli, Barlow’s athletic director and the boys’ project adviser, said he “can’t say enough good things about these two young men.”
“This project meant a lot to them. They are part of different chapters to keep the Mill River clean, and to see the efforts they put forward in order to maintain the cleanliness of the river was amazing,” he said. “They are mature beyond their years — just two wonderful young men who are throwbacks in some ways — they love to fish and be part of nature.”
“They’re not video game kids. They back up their love of fly fishing through their actions,” Santangeli said. “They worked really hard on making sure this project took place and did everything they needed to do for that.”
This fall, Stephan will be studying mechanical engineering at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., and Michael will be studying finance at the University of Connecticut.
Michael and Stephan said they would like the community to help keep the Mill River clean. One way to do this, they said, is for people to refrain from throwing garbage out their car windows while driving.
“People are often on their way to work in the morning, and throw their Dunkin’ Donuts cups out the window when they’re finished with their coffee,” Stephan said. “Why would you ruin our natural resources when you can just dispose of this in a garbage can once you get to your destination?”
The boys will receive a grade on their project after they present their findings to Santangeli. They will also be creating a website on their work.
“We’re both so passionate about the river and about fly fishing,” said Stephan, who met Michael in Cub Scouts when they were both 6 years old. “We felt this project was a way to let the community know about the major issue of trash in our rivers.”