HARTFORD, Conn. – U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday declared the Connecticut River a national model for conservation efforts, designating the waterway as the country’s first “National Blueway,” which he said will help attract further investment for improvements.

At a riverside park in Connecticut’s capital, Salazar said the designation recognizes efforts by many organizations over the last half-century to protect a river watershed that was once regarded as a landscaped sewer system. He said the river’s “rebirth” owes to an environmental awareness that developed here before many other places.

“You, unlike many other places around the world and around the states, have put together the kind of partnerships here that we need to celebrate and we need to emulate in other places around the country,” he said at the signing ceremony.

The river stretches more than 400 miles from Canada to Long Island Sound, winding past mountain peaks and flood-plain forests. The watershed is home to 2.4 million people in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Salazar also signed an order establishing the National Blueways System, which aims to help coordinate federal, state and local efforts while promoting best practices and sharing resources. It is part of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which has the goal of connecting Americans to the outdoors through conservation and recreation.

In the case of the Connecticut River, Salazar said the new designation will make it more likely to receive money from his department for projects for fish habitats, water conservation and other initiatives. He said residents can expect improvements such as additional access points.

“The Connecticut River Blueway will have a priority for these funding streams which even in these tough fiscal times are there,” he told reporters after the ceremony. He said that he expects the designation will also boost funding from non-government groups by raising the profile of local conservation efforts.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said his state and the city of Hartford have led efforts to “recapture” the river.

“Today is really a breakthrough moment, a historic step in recognizing a national treasure that we have an obligation to keep as stewards for ourselves and for future generations,” he said.

The Interior Department said it was recognizing the leadership of more than 40 organizations under the umbrella of the Friends of the Silvio O. Conte Refuge and the successes of others including states and the Connecticut River Watershed Council.

Kimberly Lutz, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut River Project, said the new designation will help by improving coordination among federal agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers. She said priorities for future work include river trails and forest restoration.

“It not only recognized the work that has been done, it’s also an umbrella for future work,” she said.

Unlike existing federal designations for rivers, which generally cover only segments, the National Blueway designation includes the entire river as well as its watershed. It does not establish a new protective status or regulations.