Narragansett Bay Estuary Program workshop highlights efforts to improve Blackstone River and its watershed
by Kate McPherson, Narragansett Bay Riverkeeper
The Blackstone River was the topic on everyone’s minds at the Blackstone Heritage Corridor Visitor Center in Worcester on Monday, April 29. Representatives from state and federal agencies in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, universities, watershed groups, and other nonprofit organizations attended to the workshop to share information, learn how well cleanup efforts in the watershed have worked, and refamiliarize with water quality monitoring efforts. Attendees also discussed current challenges, successes, and how to use science and cooperation to improve the watershed moving forward.
Celebrating progress along the Blackstone River
The first known water quality complaints about the Blackstone River emerged in 1719 as a result of a bridge that was preventing fish from swimming to upstream communities. A century later, in 1823, a federal lawsuit was filed around water usage rights related to dams and their prevention of riverflow. By 1876, the Massachusetts Department of Health had determined the majority of the watershed contained surface water that was unsafe to drink.
However, Kevin Klyberg—a park ranger with the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park who presented on the history of the region and past use of the river—described a significant change in mindset about the Blackstone over the last 40 years. Kevin compared the former mindset, in which a dump encroaching into the Blackstone Canal was once acceptable, to one that values the waterway as a valuable recreational space. The greatest victory for the Blackstone, Kevin said, is how we’ve collectively changed how people think about the river.
Morris Bergman, Councilor from the City of Worcester, likewise recalled the undoing of 200 years of damage to the river. Citing a 1990 EPA report that deemed the Blackstone “the most polluted river in the country for toxic sediment,” Morris noted that today the Blackstone River is considered Class C waters, or “suitable for some purposes.” While this is not the swimmable/fishable Blackstone River ideal, it certainly is progress.
A community effort
Mike Gerel, the relatively new director of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, acted as host of the day’s events, reiterating common themes of collaborative efforts in the workshop’s presentations and discussions. Mike engaged the audience throughout the day to make the workshop interactive and engaging and increase the opportunity for collaborative efforts.
Other presenters carried Mike’s theme into their presentations, including Martin Suuberg, Commissioner of the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection, who spoke about the importance of communication between state governments, communication with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and watershed groups that collect water quality data, and the need to sustain water quality data with support from small grant programs.
Panelists from the City of Pawtucket, Upper Blackstone Clean Water, City of Worcester and Blackstone River Water Coalition all shared the efforts of their organizations to improve the Blackstone River, the struggles they’ve encountered along the way, and how climate change impacts their work. These groups also identified the need for greater public awareness of the water quality work being done, the challenges of municipal support for addressing non-point source pollution, and the opportunities that climate change urgency brings to long-standing problems of runoff and flooding.
Projects that the audience collectively identified as important included the marking of river road crossings throughout the watershed, creation of a network-wide repository for data, and regular communication between everyone who cares about the health of the Blackstone. Several watershed groups voiced increased concern about lack of funds for water quality programs, the need for education and outreach at the most basic levels, and basic operating needs.
I had the post-lunch pleasure of leading a guided hike with Marina Flannery, from the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. Enjoying MassAudubon’s Broad Meadow Brook property, within the Blackstone River watershed, we identified newly emerging wildflowers, butterflies, frogs and birds. This 400-acre property in the heart of Worcester is the largest urban wildlife sanctuary in New England, and gives residents the ability to experience nature without leaving the city.
At the end of the day, participants had gained a greater understanding about the current conditions and future of the Blackstone River and watershed. They formed new relationships, explored potential new partnerships, and defined some specific next steps for advancing water quality and appreciation of the Blackstone watershed.
This workshop was funded by an agreement awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission on behalf of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program.