Talk NERRdy to Me: Kevin O’Brien and Jamie Vaudrey

Mar 30, 2023

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s roving reporter Nik Charov spoke with Kevin O’Brien, supervising environmental analyst, and Jamie Vaudrey, the first research coordinator at the newly designated Connecticut Reserve. They talked about why the mouth of the Connecticut River doesn’t have a city on it, some do’s and don’ts of the designation process, and why the Long Island Sound isn’t as boring as it sounds.

Nik: Thanks for coming to Talk NERRdy, Kevin and Jamie! Kevin, you’ve been in this struggle for… how long? I heard someone once say the Connecticut Reserve was 30 years in the making. 

Kevin: Connecticut had been interested in a Reserve since the designation of Hudson River in the early 1980s. I was in kindergarten, so I can’t say much more about what happened back then. I do know there was always interest, and by 2012 it looked like everything was finally going to sync up. During the Hawai’i designation, NOAA decided that once they were done, we were next. 

Nik: Who wouldn’t want a Reserve in Hawai’i? Who wouldn’t want anything in Hawai’i? But I grew up in Connecticut, 15 miles upriver from you in “the Twine Capital.”. So while I like Connecticut, I also spent my first 18 years trying to get out of Connecticut. Anyway, that’s my ax to grind. Your Reserve has three big estuaries, plus protected marine components. I heard the “why now,” but “why here?” 

Kevin: We have a lot of environmental education, science, and conservation that go on here, but many of those efforts are hyper-specific on certain areas or topics. A Reserve is a long-term, growable, sustainable opportunity to leverage a lot of the things going on and bring additional resources—it’s just a huge recipe for success. 

Jamie: I’ll get to why Connecticut is different and special. One of our partners at the Connecticut Audubon Society compares us to the Long Island Sound Study and Save the Sound, which are really working for the western sound. She’s excited because the Reserve is in the east, the more quote-unquote pristine area, which lets us look at things in a more positive light, and ask how do we preserve what’s good and move it forward? Our CT Sea Grant partner has noted while they see their programs as going out to the community, they see Reserves as bringing people to the Reserve. A place-based program! But why Connecticut? I think Connecticut is unique among Reserves. 

Nik: We all say that about our own Reserves!

Jamie: Look at the Connecticut River: its headwaters are in Canada and it includes so many New England states. That is a unique, large, freshwater source to an estuary that brings wonderful things but also issues. When you get to the mouth, it’s largely undeveloped. It’s a very large river without a port city at its mouth.

Nik: Hey… yeah! Why doesn’t it have a deep water port?

Jamie: Shifting sands, lots of shoals. It never made for a good port city. It comes down to that sediment load. You have an enormous watershed that’s draining a lot of fertile land. Once you get down to Connecticut, our soils are rocky and kind of poor, but we get a lot of fine sediments in the Connecticut River that contribute to the shoaling, shallowness, and difficulty at the mouth. The sediment load is keeping our marshes in relatively good health, in terms of keeping pace with sea level rise. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The multiple Connecticut Reserve sites are on the eastern part of Long Island Sound. 

Nik: Growing up there, or viewing it from space, I know that the Connecticut River T-bones Long Island. It’s not like the Mississippi, or even the Hudson, that goes straight out into the ocean. There’s this terminal glacial moraine there, a wall. So does the sediment load go left or right?

Jamie: Yeah, the Sound makes it go west towards New York City. It makes for a lot of interesting dynamics.

Nik: Speaking of which: how did you get involved in this circus, Jamie?

Jamie: Kevin was in charge of this from the start, and in the site selection process he was wrangling 40 or 50 very diverging opinions. I had my own divergent opinion on things, so I started volunteering. When it was decided UConn would host the Reserve, my department head tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, you seem to like this. How about taking the lead for UConn?”

Nik: How did you get into this world to begin with?

Jamie: When I was an undergrad, I was at Wellesley College and my advisor at the time knew Michelle Dionne, who was the research coordinator up at the Wells Reserve. For my senior project, I went to Wells to monitor the movement of mummichogs and sticklebacks between the pans and the neighboring estuary. That was the time of dot matrix printers and like hand-coloring your figures … 

Nik: I’ve read that paper!

Jamie: You have?! After college, I headed to the Florida Keys and did environmental education for three years and went out to Oregon to continue. Grad school brought me to UConn. My hope was to never leave UConn and I haven’t. I look at human land use and its impact on coastal water quality, using eelgrass as an indicator. In the last 10 years, I’ve gotten into looking at how living shorelines and restored marshes compare to natural marshes, and with that, climate impacts and carbon sequestration.

Nik: The Keys and Oregon are definitely charismatic places for environmental education. This is where I would make a joke about how un-charismatic Connecticut is, but I’m not going to do that… yet. But I’m trying to remember: are there other place-based environmental education and research centers in Southern Connecticut? There’s Project Oceanology, which is a boat I went on in middle school.

Kevin: Yup!

Nik: There’s the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, an Audubon Center. It has “estuary” in the name, so you’ve already got yourselves a Visitor’s Center on Day One?

Jamie: Yup!

Nik: There’s the Mystic Aquarium, but that’s farther east.

Jamie: The aquarium has quite a lot of education programs. There’s SoundWaters, Harbor Watch… there’s 30 or 40 environmental education, nature centers, and museums. We are entering a marketplace that is saturated in terms of educational opportunities for a K-12 audience, as well as visitor center-type opportunities for tourists. Where we really see a strength, given all of these other organizations, is partnering with them. Bringing the Reserve programs to them, bringing their people to our Reserve, really trying to work in collaboration.

Nik: OPM! It’s not just Other People’s Money, but their Marketing too. Kevin, you rode herd through all these different stakeholders and collaborators. How did you keep everybody thinking and moving along in the same direction? And the end result: is it a camel, i.e. a horse drawn by committee? Was this multi-component (plus marine ) Reserve a compromise, a solution… both?

Kevin: Both. It really was not challenging to reach out and say “Hey, we’re trying to do this. Would you be interested in participating?” There was no sell. They were like, “Yeah, that’s great. It makes total sense. How can I help?” Once you’ve got a committed group working toward a goal, that’s half the battle, or even three quarters.

Were there challenges? Of course. Where are we gonna put this? How big is it going to be? What’s it gonna look like? Wildly different opinions on all of that. I give a lot of kudos to our federal partners who provide guidance. I remember at one of the first meetings somebody said, “Why don’t we make the entire state a Reserve?” It was great to be able to point to other Reserves that managed to NOT do that. Insight from people that have already walked the path was hugely helpful. Also, I’ll be honest, what we ended up with was not the vision that I had.

Nik: What was the Kevin O’Brien National Estuarine Research Reserve going to look like? 

Jamie: Hey, that’s a name we suggested!

Kevin: I would have voted for that!

Nik: The one sticky dot next to that name would have been yours.

Kevin: It would have had a much smaller footprint. <laughs> At first, I didn’t think we needed to be so expansive. But I remember discussions that you brought up, Jamie, about how far the eastern boundary should go, because of key eelgrass meadows out there that we need to have. 

Nik: There seems to be more water within the boundaries of the Connecticut Reserve than is typical. Is that because of the eelgrass?

Jamie: I will say the eelgrass, but also I think all that water is the way we are a single Reserve. Even though we have four terrestrial properties, they are all touched by that water; it’s what joins them together. That water piece gives us a lot of things that really make us distinct. We have cold water corals, really soft bottoms, hard bottoms. Just under 50% of Long Island Sound’s eelgrass is encompassed by the Reserve. I was just at an underwater ROV demonstration. Now we’re envisioning a “Welcome to underwater Long Island Sound.”

Nik: For Connecticut, that does sound exciting. There’s a lot of there there: you can sit in the middle of the Reserve this September and see 500,000 tree swallows circling Lord’s Cove. Meanwhile, within or adjacent there’s a nuclear power plant, an airport, Navy submarines, a former bioweapons lab… growing up, in my Goonies phase, I heard about sunken pirate ships. There’s your first underwater ROV project—doubloons as local match! Is that in your 338-page Management Plan? What happens after you hire a staff? 

Jamie: We have all four coordinators on staff. Everyone that has come on is like, “Wow, I feel like I’m already two months behind.”

Nik: You’ll never catch up.

Jamie: There’s a lot that we want to accomplish. We want to collaborate to promote these places, engage and energize people, and support initiatives that will help improve our environment—whether that’s advancing Connecticut’s goal to reduce carbon output or reducing nutrient input to our coastal oceans. There are also up and coming initiatives, like reducing plastic or addressing toxins like PFAS. The other big focus is serving underrepresented populations and environmental justice communities. 

Nik: You’re talking about Old Lyme here? They’ve been suffering from Lyme disease since the early 1980s. And they’ve got a lot of art museums and choral music. Horrible!

Jamie: Uh, maybe not so much Old Lyme. I’d say communities like New London, Norwich, certain areas of Groton… the way we drew our targeted watershed boundary includes 44% of Connecticut’s environmental justice communities, though we don’t include 44% of the state. I would like to see the Reserve taking very concrete and direct action to meet those communities where they are, to find out what they want, to make that a part of our programming. 

Nik: For those beginning or underway in their designation process, what advice would you have? How can we make the journey easier?

Kevin: Make sure that you’re coordinating and communicating with federal partners. NOAA is so easy to work with. They’re so in-tune with this, they’ve done this before, they know what’s going on. Also ask questions. Chances are there are best management practices or things to avoid, people out there that you can contact. Other Reserves are a huge resource. I don’t think I’ve been involved with an organization that is so welcoming and willing to help. I cannot say enough about Betsy Blair in New York, who was there at the beginning and laid out what this is all about. 

When we were going through the site selection, the scoring guidance that was available at the time was fairly simplistic. We were looking at a lot of really good sites. It was really hard to use that numeric description to narrow down the sites. If we could come up with a more elaborate scoring system, perhaps it would help tease out the logjam of sites that we had.

Nik: I’m sure each upcoming Reserve will have a different set of potential sites. Louisiana, Wisconsin, the Virgin Islands—my notes say they’re nothing like Connecticut. 

Jamie: I would emphasize boundary conditions. We figured out late in the game what was core versus buffer. We have some militarily restricted zones in the Reserve, so we had to come back and draw security zones. We didn’t want the major shipping channel of New London to be part of our core. Of course, that’s obvious looking back on it, but it didn’t come up. The other challenge was the things that pop up that you really can’t predict. We would get questions about hunting or aquaculture. People want more assurance that we’re not going to regulate them out of doing what they want to do. But NOAA was so helpful with that.

To write our management plan, we hosted 10 community-based meetings, and Reserve staff from around the country and NOAA participated. That was really informative and insightful for our audience, stakeholders, and partners. It was incredibly helpful to have people actually working in the Reserve System answer the questions instead of us trying to guess.

Nik: It would have been a much different designation process in the 1980s, and not only because you were in kindergarten, Kevin. We didn’t have this full System. Our Reserve System is heading into middle age and we’re wiser. Things will probably just start hurting all the time now for no reason. But thank you both so much for giving us a bit of what it took and what’s coming up. On behalf of all of us: welcome to the family. And thanks for keeping Erica and company busy in Silver Spring. …Now you’re on your own.

Jamie: That’s not true!

Nik: Correct! 

Kevin: I just want to thank the entire System. We would not be here, in the position that we’re in, to do all the cool things we talked about, without the help from NOAA, NERRA, and the other Reserves. Thank you. We’ll see you all here!

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