By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor
WESTERLY, R.I. — The long-awaited process to garner federal Wild and Scenic Rivers’ designation for the Wood and Pawcatuck rivers watershed in southern Rhode Island recently cleared its final hurdle in Congress, when it was approved Dec. 12 by the Senate.
The legislation, first introduced in 2012, will provide the watershed federal protection and access to federal money for programs and studies. The legislation passed in the House last week.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., attached two Rhode Island public lands initiatives to the National Defense Authorization Act. Besides the designation for the watershed, the other is the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park Establishment Act to create a new unit of the National Park System along the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.
It was the second time the bill had been introduced in Congress. The first attempt in 2012 passed the House but died in the Senate. The second attempt was filed last year.
“Pursuing a Wild and Scenic designation was the catalyst for the creation of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association in the early 1980s,” the WPWA’s current executive director, Chris Fox, said. “I am very pleased that progress toward obtaining this designation has finally been achieved and I am proud of our staff, partners and the Rhode Island and Connecticut congressional delegations’ tireless efforts to reach this milestone. The passage of this act provides protection for rivers that generate significant tourism and recreation revenue for Rhode Island and Connecticut. The designation further supports the ongoing revitalization of the Pawcatuck River and its tributaries as a prime destination for migratory fish.”
The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act will make federal restoration and conservation resources available for a three-year study funded by the National Park Service. A meeting to start that process is expected in January between federal and state officials. The three-year study would include meetings with various town officials, landowners and organizations, such as the WPWA.
If the park service ultimately recommends the designation, the group will go back to Congress to amend the Rivers Act to include the watershed.
WPWA program director Denise Poyer said that in anticipation of the bill’s passage, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., requested a reconnaissance survey of the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed. The survey was completed in 2013, and its summary states, “The National Park Service reconnaissance survey team has determined, based on readily available information, that segments of the Wood-Pawcatuck River exhibit free-flowing character and noteworthy natural, cultural and recreational resource values likely to meet eligibility criteria for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.”
The watershed covers 300 square miles, which includes 14 towns in Rhode Island and Connecticut. It features five rivers — Wood, Pawcatuck, Beaver, Chipuxet and Queen — and numerous streams.
“The Wood and Pawcatuck rivers are important to Rhode Island’s economy and environment and we must protect these natural resources,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said. “This initiative could help develop a collaborative river management plan to address issues ranging from fish passages to the restoration of wetlands to assistance with flood mitigation.”
The Wood River features the “highest biodiversity of any river in New England,” Poyer said. She also noted that this new designation will prohibit the building of any dams and hydropower projects.
What it doesn’t change, Poyer said, is zoning regulations and property rights. “Landowners will not have to provide access to the rivers,” she said.
The positives of the designation are that it will protect water quality and draw interest to rivers, increase property values near the rivers and result in economic development, Poyer said.
The downside, she said, is that it provides an extra layer of review to all federally funded projects and permitting, including dam removals. It could also increase the use of the rivers that might inadvertently create an adverse impact.
The Blackstone River portion of the legislation would create a multisite park that would include areas of the Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket and nearby mill towns, including Slatersville (North Smithfield) and Ashton (Cumberland) in Rhode Island and Whitinsville and Hopedale in Massachusetts.
“The Blackstone Valley is a national treasure that deserves to be preserved,” Reed said. “It is the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution and includes thousands of acres of beautiful, undeveloped land, and waterways that are home to diverse wildlife, cultural sites, and numerous recreational opportunities for Rhode Islanders.”
Designated as a National Heritage Corridor in 1986 by Congress, the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor links 24 communities along the Blackstone River, from Providence to Worcester, Mass.
The designation for the Blackstone River Valley likely would be run collaboratively through a special partnership that would allow the National Park Service to manage and operate the facilities and provide educational services in the park in partnership with regional and local preservation groups that would lead the efforts to preserve the surrounding rural and agriculture landscape within the existing corridor, according to Reed.
According to the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, more than $25 million has been spent on preserving historic buildings, creating museums, constructing visitor centers and building permanent exhibits in the Heritage Corridor.