Local Fresh Waters in Need of Protection

By ecoRI News staff

There are almost 2,800 miles of rivers and 44,000 acres of lakes in the Nar­ragansett Bay region. These fresh waters are a critical resource, providing habitat for fish and wildlife, exceptional opportunities for recreational boating, fishing and swimming, and drinking water for nearly 2 million people.

In future years, Watershed Counts will report on the quality of all fresh waters in the Narragansett Bay region, including lakes and reservoirs. This year, the project started with four watersheds — the Blackstone, Taunton, Woonasquatucket and Wood-Pawcatuck — and looked at the water quality of rivers and streams. The evaluation was based on the Rhode Island, Mas­sachusetts and Connecticut state water quality assessments, and looked in particular at the suitability of the water as fish and wildlife habitat, a place to swim and boat and whether it is safe to eat fish that live in the water.

In the watersheds examined, in general the smaller head­water streams exhibit better water quality than downstream major rivers. Since the health of the major rivers is strongly affected by the health of the streams that feed into them, this is good news. But it’s also a cautionary tale. Development pressures can be high in the very areas where the high quality tributary streams flow. Maintaining undeveloped buffer land adjacent to streams and wetlands to filter runoff from roads and lawns, placing road crossings and culverts so flow and the movement of fish and other river animals is not restricted, and minimizing impacts to wetland areas are some actions that are being taken to protect these headwater streams.

The Narragansett Bay watershed was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. For decades, many of its working rivers were heavily utilized for industry, commerce and other human purposes, including wastewater disposal. This legacy of industri­alization continues to affect water quality, particularly in the urbanized portions of the Woonasquatucket and Blackstone rivers.

The water quality of our rivers reflects the activities occurring in the surround­ing watershed. Rivers are relied on to receive wastewater and industrial discharges and stormwater runoff from devel­oped land. Urban stormwater conveys a variety of pollutants, such as fertilizers that can be a source of excess nutrients.

Safe to eat fish?
Rivers throughout the region provide exceptional rec­reational opportunities for canoeing and kayaking. The Wood-Pawcatuck and Taunton are regionally renowned for their paddling opportunities. In the urban areas, however, the rivers don’t consistently meet standards for boating and swimming. In fact, it is best to avoid contact with urban waters during rainstorms. Raw sewage is discharged through combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and runoff from urban areas contains high levels of bacteria from animal waste.

Is it safe to eat the fish? This question continues to puzzle experts. Fish consumption testing has been done in the Connecti­cut portion of the Pawcatuck watershed. Fish have been determined safe to eat in all the streams tested. As Rhode Island doesn’t have an established fish tissue monitoring program, comparable data isn’t available for the remainder of the watershed.

The state Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish & Wildlife stocks many of the rivers and streams with hatchery-raised trout. The intention is that these fish will be consumed. For most of the remaining river miles, there is insufficient data to determine whether the fish are safe to eat. And although the Blackstone has the most infor­mation, only about a quarter of the river has been studied for fish consumption.

Watershed Counts based its recent water quality analysis on the Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut 2010 state water quality assessments. Under the federal Clean Water Act, states are required to adopt water quality standards for their surface waters. These standards define the goals for a water body by designating its uses and setting criteria to pro­tect those uses.

The water quality is then analyzed through a series of lenses, evaluating specific parameters to decide whether the water is safe for recreational use, whether water quality will allow fish and other aquatic animals to live and thrive, whether it is safe to eat fish caught from the water and whether the water is safe to drink. In keeping with the states’ 2010 water quality assessment determinations, Watershed Counts partners decided to visually present the information by ranking water quality as acceptable (blue), partially acceptable (yellow) and unacceptable (red) based on a combined evaluation of three uses — aquatic life, recreation and fish consumption for each river. River segments that were not assessed (no or insuffi­cient data) are colored gray.

Woonasquatucket River Watershed
The lower Woonasquatucket River has an industrial his­tory, and south of the Georgiaville Pond in Smithfield, the river is unsuitable for all uses including aquatic habitat, swimming and eating fish. South of the Smithfield line, the Woonasquatucket has a catch-and-release advisory issued by the state Department of Health. This is one of the few places in Rhode Island with a fish consumption advisory. 

Although this river segment shows unacceptable water quality, it still provides habitat for wildlife and recre­ational opportunities. During rainstorms, raw sewage flows directly into the Woonasquatucket through combined sewer overflows and people shouldn’t spend time in the river for any reason. But three days after a storm, the water quality improves significantly. The Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council encourages paddling on the river and catch-and-release fishing, as well as biking and walking along the river’s shore. It is not unusual to see a variety of birds, fish and turtles while strolling along the river.

Most of the upper watershed in Smithfield, North Smithfield and Glocester is swimmable in almost all areas that have been assessed. The areas that haven’t been assessed are also likely to be accept­able for swimming and aquatic life as they are in more sparsely developed areas with few polluting inputs. With the exception of Latham and Whipple brooks in Smithfield, the mainstem Woonasquatucket and its feeder streams support aquatic life and/or swimming. Latham Brook has some elevated lead levels causing it to show unacceptable water quality.

Restoration activities along the lower Woonasquatucket have provided fish passage through the first five dams on the river, and the river is supporting a healthy herring population. The goal is to have 40,000 adult herring breeding in the lower Woonasquatucket in the next 15 years.

Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed
This watershed encompasses a 300-square-mile area of land in southern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut. The watershed covers about 25 percent of Rhode Island’s landmass. Its seven major drainage basins include the Queen, Wood, Chickasheen, Chipuxet, Shunock, Green Falls and Pawcatuck rivers, and their tributaries. It is one of the few remaining relatively pris­tine natural areas along the Northeast corridor between New York and Boston.

The Nature Conservancy has identified the borderlands between Rhode Island and Connecticut as containing the last large forested track south of Boston. The Wood River was identi­fied in a National Parks Service study as having the highest biodiversity of any river in New England. Despite its proximity to major metropolitan areas, the watershed remains 80 percent for­ested, which helps maintain its excellent habitat quality.

The Wood-Pawcatuck watershed offers unparalleled rec­reational opportunities. It contains 57 canoeable river miles, numerous streams in pristine forest for fishing for native brook trout and stocked brown and rainbow trout, and five state management areas for hiking, biking, hunting, birding and natures studies. Congress is currently considering a bill to direct the National Parks Service to study the watershed for inclusion in the Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

The Shannock portion of the Pawcatuck River is currently undergoing fish passage projects — paid for in part by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) stimulus money. One dam has been removed in lower Shan­nock, a fish ladder and eel-way has been completed around the iconic Horseshoe Dam and a rock ramp is expected to be built at Kenyon Industries this summer. Once completed it is anticipated that herring and shad will have access to quality spawning grounds in the upper Pawcatuck.

Water quality is acceptable or partially acceptable through­out most of the watershed. Areas of the most concern are sections of the rivers below working industrial sites. These include sections on the Pawcatuck River below Kenyon and Bradford, and the Ashaway River. Canochet Brook may have influences from inadequate septic systems and former mill activities, and the Chickasheen has agricultural influences.

The lower Pawcatuck is in a more heav­ily urbanized area of the watershed and has problems with road runoff, inadequate septic systems and agricultural input. There is one section just below the Connecticut border where it’s not unusual to see cows in the river.

Blackstone River Watershed
Thirty-four percent of the river miles in this watershed haven’t been assessed. But the Blackstone River Coalition is sampling many of these smaller tributaries, examining the impacts of stormwater runoff and nutrients on river water quality. 

More than 40 percent of the river miles are unacceptable for aquatic life. The mainstem receives significant volumes of waste­water effluent from treatment plants in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts. These facilities have been targeted for upgrades to reduce pollutant load­ings of nutrients in order to improve water quality in both the river and downstream in Narragansett Bay.

Several of the smaller streams in Glocester, Burrillville, Cumberland and North Smithfield have acceptable water quality for aquatic life. It is likely that many of the other small streams in these areas, which have not been assessed, have equally good water quality.

The mainstem Blackstone in Massachusetts and Rhode Island has unacceptable water quality for recreation. But like the Woonasquatucket River, the river provides excellent paddling opportunities that can be safely enjoyed by not paddling immedi­ately after a rain storm. In the upper watershed, some tributaries in Cumberland, North Smithfiled, Glocester and Burrillville have water quality that is acceptable for recreation.

Unlike most rivers in Rhode Island, sections of the Blackstone watershed have been monitored for fish consumption. The red triangles on the map show where water quality is unacceptable for fish consumption. In Massachusetts, there is a statewide Depart­ment of Health advisory for pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, nursing mothers and children younger than 12 that advises against eating any fish caught in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds in Massachusetts due to elevated concentrations of mercury.

Taunton River Watershed
The Taunton River flows freely without dams for 40 miles in southeastern Massachusetts through long stretches of for­ested banks and through urban areas. In March 2009, Congress added the Taunton River to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, acknowledging its “outstandingly remarkable” values, including fisheries, scenery, recreation, history, ecology and biodiversity, and guarantee­ing that the river will be preserved in free-flowing condition in perpetuity. 

The Taunton River watershed encompasses a large region: 562 square miles of southeastern Massachusetts are drained by the Taunton River mainstem, nine major tributar­ies and many smaller streams. The watershed includes 43 cities and towns — a mix of densely developed areas, suburban and rural communities, farmland, and undeveloped forests and wetlands that provide habitat for 77 species listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.

The Taunton River and its tributaries are home to 45 species of fish; the Taunton and Nemasket rivers together support the largest alewife run in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) hasn’t assessed water quality in 37 percent of stream miles in the watershed. DEP’s “2010 Massachusetts Integrated Waters List” uses data from testing conducted in 2001, some of which may not accurately reflect current con­ditions.

Nonetheless, this information reveals a patchwork of stream segments across the watershed where water quality supports recreational use and/or fish and aquatic life in some areas and fails to support one or both in others. Examples of segments that fully support both uses include the Cedar Swamp River and upper reaches of the Assonet River in Lakeville and Freetown, Mass., and the Satucket River in East Bridgewater, Mass. The upper reaches of the Nemasket River in Lakeville and Middleborough, Mass., meet the standards for fish and aquatic life.

Because of low levels of dissolved oxygen, the lower portion of the Taunton River, from the Berkley Bridge to the Braga Bridge in Fall River, Mass., is considered “not acceptable” for aquatic life. Trout Brook, Salisbury Brook, the entire Salisbury Plain and the Mat­field River in the Brockton/Bridgewater area don’t meet the standards for either recreation or aquatic life. Contribut­ing causes in these areas may be stormwater runoff from large areas of impervious surface and/or discharges from wastewater treatment facilities. The upper reaches of the Rumford and Wading rivers in Mansfield, Mass., don’t support aquatic life, possibly because of low levels of stream flow.