Watershed towns begin process toward Wild & Scenic status for Wood, Pawcatuck rivers

Hopkinton, R.I. — Representatives of the 14 mostly rural towns in the watershed of the Wood and Pawcatuck rivers came together Thursday to begin a three-year process toward achieving National Wild & Scenic River status for sections of the two rivers and their tributaries.

“Anybody who knows these rivers knows we’ve got something special here,” Denise Poyer, project coordinator at the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, said during the meeting at the nonprofit organization’s offices on the Wood River.

The association is leading the effort to document to the National Park Service that the rivers possess the “outstandingly remarkable values” qualifying them for inclusion in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System.

The designation would bring recognition for the rivers’ historic, environmental, recreational, cultural and other values, as well as resources to help preserve those values.

Along with the town representatives, the study committee also includes officials from the Rhode Island and Connecticut environmental regulatory agencies, the Nature Conservancy and Save the Bay, a nonprofit environmental group that focuses on Little Narragansett Bay, the tidal area at the mouth of the Pawcatuck.

Four Connecticut towns — Stonington, North Stonington, Voluntown and Sterling — are in the 300-square-mile watershed, along with 10 towns in Rhode Island.

To win approval, Congress would have to approve a recommendation made by the National Park Service following completion of the study. All the towns in the watershed also would have to agree to pursue the congressional approval.

“We want to have voices from all the towns, so at the end of the process, we can have buy-in from all the towns,” Poyer said.

The designation would apply to 34 miles of the Pawcatuck River, 21 miles of the Wood River and 35 miles of the Beaver, Chipuxet and Queen rivers. A fourth tributary, the Shunock River in North Stonington, also may be added, Poyer said.

Madeline Jeffery, one of two North Stonington representatives on the study committee, said she would be “thrilled” to have the Shunock included in the study and ultimately recognized with the “Wild & Scenic” title because of its historic and natural resource values.

Rachel Calabro, community advocate with Save the Bay, added that her organization would like to see the fresh and tidal marsh areas of the lower Pawcatuck added to the areas being considered for designation.

Richard Seager, the other North Stonington representative, asked whether the Wild & Scenic designation would bring new legal restrictions on development or other activities affecting the rivers.

Jamie Fosburgh, New England team leader for the Wild & Scenic Rivers program of the National Park Service, said watershed towns would still govern most development through zoning and other mechanisms.

Only federally funded water-related projects or those requiring federal permits would first have to receive park service approval that the project is consistent with protecting the Wild & Scenic values.

The designation also would limit the ability to place hydroelectric dams on the rivers, but Poyer said previous studies have found that that none of the river segments have sufficient slope in their stream corridors to generate electricity.

In New England, 10 other rivers have received the designation, including the Farmington River in north central Connecticut and the Eightmile River in Lyme, Salem and East Haddam.

All of the recommendations by the park service for Wild & Scenic Rivers have been approved by Congress, Fosburgh said, “though we have had it take a while to get through Congress.”

Fosburgh said he expects the park service will be able to provide at least $60,000 for the study.

Those funds would pay for watershed association staff to work on the study, the hiring of expert consultants to research specific areas such as rare and endangered species, and for public outreach about the project, he said.

Poyer said that along with the study documenting the unique values of the rivers, a management plan for the rivers would be created. The plan would describe how towns should act to preserve the rivers.

“It’s not a financial commitment, it’s a commitment to protecting the values of the rivers,” she said. “To me, that’s one of the most important aspects of this.”

Fred Wagner, representative from Stonington, asked whether the presence of the Stonington and Westerly sewage treatment plant discharges on the Pawcatuck weaken the chances that the rivers would earn Wild & Scenic designation.

Also representing Stonington on the committee are Boyd Cooke and James Leigh.

“We’ve got lots of other Wild & Scenic rivers that have discharges on them,” Fosburgh said. “It would just be something noted in the study.”

The committee plans to meet again in January to establish committees, elect officers and set a budget and meeting schedule.

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

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