Pawcatuck River focus of restoration initiatives, starting with the fish
South Kingstown, R.I. — On a cloudy late April morning, a pickup truck pulled up to the state boat launch at Worden Pond carrying a large white cauldron filled with a strange brand of fish stew.
Within a few minutes, a thick stream of 750 silvery river herring gushed out of the tank into the pond, slapping the surface as they swam away.
“This is the fourth or fifth year we’ve been doing this,” said Phillip Edwards, supervising fisheries biologist with the R.I. Department of Environmental Management. “We’re hoping these fish will go out into the pond and spawn, and the juvenile fish will hatch here and be imprinted to this pond, and in three or four years they’ll return.”
Worden Pond, a main part of the headwaters of the Pawcatuck River, is both the beginning and the end of a back-to-the-future renewal for the waterway that is the defining natural feature for 14 towns in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Extending through rural southwestern Rhode Island and along the border with Connecticut, the Pawcatuck River has recently had four related conservation and restoration initiatives, including the fish stocking. Later this spring, juvenile shad will join the river herring in the pond.
Before European settlers started arriving in the 17th century, migratory herring, shad and eel would swim up Little Narragansett Bay to follow the Pawcatuck 38 miles into Worden Pond to spawn. As dams were built along the waterway in the 19th and 20th centuries to power local mills, fish passage was blocked, starving the river of an important food source for raptors, striped bass, bluefish and other wildlife.
Today, most of the dams have been torn down, have fallen into disrepair and been breached, or have had fish ladders erected alongside. While the fish highway isn’t perfect yet — some of the ladders and dam breaches are still considered too restrictive — it has improved substantially, and herring are migrating into the river. The herring being brought to the pond, Edwards explained, are caught in traps set in the lower Pawcatuck.
“Now there is access all the way from Little Narragansett Bay to Worden Pond,” Edwards said.
Since 2010, two dams have been razed, a fish ladder has been built and fish stocking has begun. A fifth project — to remove the already breached White Rock dam between Westerly and Pawcatuck — is underway. These five projects are preparing the way for other efforts focusing on improving management, conservation and water quality of this beloved local resource.
“The Pawcatuck River is a very important target for us. It scores very highly in the region, habitat-wise,” said Scott Comings, director of land and freshwater conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter, which is leading the White Rock dam removal project and preserves thousands of acres in the watershed. “For us, the biggest thing is working to remove the remaining dams and improving the fish passage so the river functions as well as it can."
Working with state, federal and private nonprofit partners, the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association has been leading the various projects. These include developing a flood resiliency plan for the 14 watershed towns and seeking Wild and Scenic River status for 34 miles of the Pawcatuck, along with five of its tributaries. The process of obtaining that National Park Service designation will begin in October with a three-year study, said Denise Poyer, program director of the watershed association.
“The study will look at the outstanding and remarkable values of the whole watershed,” Poyer said. Achieving the designation, she said, “will be good for the economy, and bring attention to our area.”
The Wild and Scenic effort will advance in tandem with the flood resiliency project, which has a complementary mission, explained Poyer and Christopher Fox, the association’s executive director. With origins in the devastating floods of 2010, it will help the towns determine how to reduce the risk of damage to homes, businesses, roads, bridges and other structures from future floods. Natural flood control measures such as conservation of floodplains will be emphasized.
“We’ll assess every bridge, culvert and dam from a flood resiliency standpoint,” Fox said.
To Ben Bradley, who’s lived with his wife on a house on Worden Pond for 12 years, the various river projects mean that an area he already treasures is getting even better. As a volunteer for Watershed Watch, a University of Rhode Island program, he collects water samples from the pond each week for six months each year, and has been pleased with test results showing its consistently high quality.
“I don’t hesitate to eat the fish from the pond, and my wife and I both swim in it,” he said. “There are eels and bass and pickerel, pike and perch in the pond, and bald eagles are common. I’ve seen bears, otters and wildcats in the area.”
'A watershed-wide approach'
Fed by the Chipuxet River and Great Swamp — at 3,350 acres the largest swamp in New England — Worden Pond is a shallow natural glacial lake, with depths of 4 to 6 feet. Its nearly 1,000 acres of open waters make it the state’s largest lake and one of its cleanest, said Elizabeth Scott, deputy chief in the office of water resources for the Rhode Island DEM. It is popular with fishermen and windsurfers.
“It’s fully supporting aquatic life and recreational uses,” she said.
Water quality data on the pond from 1994 to 2013 confirm that assessment, with bacteria, phosphorous and other indicators below harmful levels, and nitrogen — a main cause of low oxygen and weed overgrowth in many waterways — at moderate levels.
Every spring for several years, Bradley and a couple of his friends have spent several days canoeing from 100-acre Pond, where the Chipuxet River begins, along the river and into Worden Pond, then on into the Pawcatuck River. Further upstream, they camp for the night at Burlingame State Park or the Carolina Management Area. The first stretch of the Pawcatuck, he said, “is really fascinating.”
“It’s really rugged, with beaver dams and lodges,” he said. “A couple of years ago we got lost on that stretch, because everything was flooded and we couldn’t find the main river channel.”
Poyer, who has led several source-to-sea paddles on the Pawcatuck, said the first part of the Pawcatuck was “like a mini Amazon jungle.”
“It’s got a lot of twisting, turning channels,” she said. "That area has some of the most unique habitat in the state."
As Chickasheen Brook and the Usquepaug River join the Pawcatuck, the river widens to a landing at Biscuit City Road, a favorite spot for paddlers heading downstream.
In this roughly 1.5-mile stretch between where the Pawcatuck flows out of Worden Pond and the Biscuit City Road landing, the water quality takes a turn for the worse, with elevated levels of e-coli bacteria and nitrogen.
Finding the causes and cures of pollution problems, Fox said, is one of the main challenges ahead for the association and others who care about the river.
“We’re taking a holistic, watershed-wide approach,” he said.
Where the river meets tidal waters in Little Narragansett Bay, the nonprofit group Save the Bay is joining with other local groups on actions to identify pollution sources and solutions there.
From a historical perspective, Poyer said, water quality is moving in the right direction, compared to what it was in the last two centuries.
"The water quality is better now than it was when all the mills were running and everything went into the river," she said.
Towns in the Wood-Pawcatuck River watershed
North Stonington, Sterling, Stonington, Voluntown
In Rhode Island:
Charlestown, Coventry, East Greenwich, Hopkinton, West Greenwich, North Kingstown, Richmond, South Kingstown, Westerly, Exeter
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