Volunteers, officials gather to applaud work done in the past decade to protect the river’s watershed
By CATHERINE SENGEL/ecoRI News contributor
BLACKSTONE, Mass. — The atmosphere was festive at Blackstone Gorge on July 26, as champions of the Blackstone River gathered to celebrate progress toward restoring the watershed’s health.
What Blackstone River Coalition (BRC) members like to refer to as “America’s hardest working river” has seen significant improvement in the decade since the “Campaign for a Fishable/Swimmable Blackstone by 2015” brought a broad array of conservation groups, and public and government interests together.
“It’s hard to believe that in 1990 the EPA called the Blackstone one of the most polluted rivers in the country,” Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, said. “Today shows why preservation efforts are so important.”
When the federal Clean Water Act was signed in 1972, the only two species of fish in the river’s upper reaches were carp and suckers. BRC watershed advocate Donna Williams reported a count of 19 species in the main stem when the campaign began in 2003 and 23 as of this year. Tallies that include tributaries report 36 species identified.
Thriving fish population have brought waterfowl, such as kingfishers, great blue herons, cormorants and osprey, back to the river, and bald eagles are nesting upriver in Northbridge and downriver in Cumberland and Pawtucket, R.I.
What coalesced into the BRC followed Expedition 2000, when 30 canoeists and kayakers made a four-day journey down the river to draw attention to this important natural resource. The need for a broader focus on cleanup partnered efforts including those of the Blackstone River Watershed Association, the Blackstone Headwater Coalition, Save The Bay, Mass Audubon, and Rhode Island and Massachusetts chapters of Trout Unlimited.
After more than a million fish, mostly menhaden, died in Narragansett Bay in August 2003, federal, state and municipal agencies took aim at restoring and preserving the water quality of the entire watershed for both the ecological and economic welfare of the region. “Clean by ’15” became a rallying cry.
In 2003, the BRC began Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) specific monitoring of water quality at 75 sites along the Blackstone River and its tributaries. The July 30 celebration was as much a way to applaud the work of volunteers as prime forces behind improving conditions inside the watershed as cheering for results.
Using a diagram of the river stretched along a gorge walkway, Peter Coffin, BRC coordinator, recounted a history of the forces that contributed to the river scape and presented the numbers from the most recent water-quality tests done by 80 volunteers, who test water monthly April through November.
Slowly, but surely, Coffin said, conditions are improving. Nutrient levels are high in the main stem and contaminants are still buried in sediment, especially beside dams, but wastewater treatment plants are aligning with stricter limits and having less of an impact.
“We know that most of the tributaries are in good shape and that it’s everyone’s job to keep them that way,” Williams said.
While efforts are approaching the goal of a fishable Blackstone, safe swimming still has a lot to do with area and weather conditions.
Lisa Primiano, with planning and development for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, thanked the volunteers and the many organizations involved for “incredible efforts” that helped tighten stormwater regulations, push green infrastructure, phase out cesspools and better fund water-treatment facilities.
The Blackstone Gorge site itself is testament to responsible stewardship by local interests. Wooded spaces on the bluff on the Massachusetts side above Rolling Dam were slated for development 20 years ago, when the Metacomet Land Trust and generous supporters stepped in to protect and manage a scenic overlook, boat launch and nature trails along the river’s banks as a bi-state park.
The Blackstone River and tributaries are part of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor and were recently made part of the National Park System as the Blackstone Valley National Historical Park. This designation will bring added federal resources for education and outreach, cleanup, recreational activity, and community and school programs.
Matthew Sisk, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, spoke about a $20 million project to build one of the Northeast’s most comprehensive greenways, stretching from Blackstone, Millville and Uxbridge to Providence.
“This is the home of the Industrial Revolution, where our economy grew,” McDonald told the gathering. “It’s going to grow again because of our collective protection of this incredible resource. I’m so proud of the work that you’ve done.”