Ten Mile River Has Quiet Advocate On Its Side

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Keith Gonsalves goes paddling at least once a week on one of Rhode Island’s many rivers. Many of those therapeutic trips are on the Ten Mile River, a long-forgotten body of water that he has spent the past seven years revitalizing and promoting.

“I’m in the wild,” said the affable Gonsalves of gliding down the river that meanders through his hometown. “I’m in someone’s backyard, but I’m in the wild.”

Ten Mile River is actually 22 miles long and drains a 54-square-mile area in southeastern Massachusetts and northeastern Rhode Island. The river’s headwaters are at Savage Pond in Plainville Mass., and from there it flows south through North Attleboro, Attleboro and Seekonk before entering Rhode Island, where it flows over Omega Dam into the Seekonk River.

In 2006, Gonsalves founded the Ten Mile River Watershed Council, to advocate for the restoration of the river’s watershed and encourage recreational activities within it. Before the council was created, there was no specific group keeping tabs on the river.

After his two daughters had grown up and moved on to college, a friend got Gonsalves hooked on kayaking and canoeing. “I was a recovering soccer dad who had some free time because my kids didn’t need me anymore,” he said.

On Columbus Day 2006, the now-retired Providence firefighter’s first act as president of the river’s newly created watershed council was to drag a pollution control boom from the mouth of the river at Central Pond.

“Some friends and I dragged it out of there with a truck,” Gonsalves, 56, recalled with a smile. “We were all muddy, but we had fun. The construction company’s name was on it, so we called and they came and took it away.”

A lost boom, however, was hardly the biggest challenge faced by those looking to clean up the river. Like most rivers in the area, Ten Mile River was contaminated during the Industrial Revolution. By the early 1900s, the river had become heavily polluted and ignored. Today, thanks in part to the efforts of the Ten Mile River Watershed Council, the Rhode Island Blueways Alliance, the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch and countless volunteers, the river and its watershed are cleaner than they have been in decades, and the river is now fishable and portions north of Attleboro, swimmable.

However, the impacts of industrialization are still visible in many parts of the Ten Mile River watershed. In 2010, a toxic algal bloom was identified on Turner Reservoir, which caused a ban on recreational activities for parts of August and September.

The Ten Mile River Watershed Council, in association with the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch, monitors Turner Reservoir. This comprehensive watershed-based program focuses on the long-term ecological monitoring of the reservoir, with volunteer "citizen scientists" monitoring water quality weekly from May to October.

The council’s mission, Gonsalves said, is to make the river an attraction, promote its use and protect it.

Upon graduating URI in 1980, Gonsalves soon realized a degree in plant and soil science wasn’t going to pay the bills. “It was my passion,” he said. “I wanted to be a future farmer, but there was no money in that, so I spent four years studying petunias to become a firefighter. I was fortunate to get the job.”

For nearly two decades Gonsalves worked as a Providence firefighter, retiring early, in 2009, because of injuries sustained when responding to an accident on Rugby Street in Providence.

“I live on the public’s dollar, but I wanted to give back,” Gonsalves said about his work with the Ten Mile River Watershed Council.

He will continue with his payback plan this Saturday, April 13, when the Ten Mile River Watershed Council will be holding a fish count/hike/cleanup at Hunt’s Mills (Route 114A) from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.