Victory for the Wood-Pawcatuck River Watershed
by South County Coastkeeper David Prescott
The greatest victories are not won overnight. They take time, the strength of many partners and a positive attitude to bring about change. After more than a decade, I am happy to report another significant win for our local waters—a win that guarantees protection into perpetuity. On Tuesday, March 12, President Trump signed a wide-ranging public lands bill that included a provision officially designating the seven rivers within the Wood-Pawcatuck River watershed as one of our nation’s Wild and Scenic Rivers. This designation, established under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, affords special protections to safeguard water quality, fish and animal communities and recreational resources.
Congress created the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. It is only fitting that 50 years after the passage of Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, that we celebrate Rhode Island’s very first river system to achieve this proud designation!
How It Started
This whole effort started over 10 years ago, in February 2009. Save The Bay met with the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association in STB’s South Coast office in downtown Westerly. Initially, the conversation focused on ways our two organizations could work together more closely. The Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association had been working to restore fish passage at several dams on the Pawcatuck River. The time was ripe to revisit the initial Wild and Scenic study of these rivers from back in 1982 and to reinvigorate efforts to pursue this designation.
Last month’s victory came on the heels of the Wild and Scenic designation for the Taunton River in nearby Massachusetts. However, up until now, no river segments in Rhode Island have ever achieved this nationwide designation. These amazing rivers—the Beaver, Chipuxet, Green Fall – Ashaway, Pawcatuck, Queen – Usquepaugh, Shunock, and Wood Rivers—offer exceptional recreational opportunities for paddlers, birders, fisherman and others. They contain thousands of acres of wetlands providing habitat for a high diversity of fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and invertebrates. More rare and endangered species are found in the rivers of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed than anywhere else in the region.
The Wood and Pawcatuck Rivers ultimately flow into Little Narragansett Bay, and then out into Long Island Sound. They form the geographic divide between Rhode Island and Connecticut, and between the towns of Westerly, R.I. and Stonington, Conn. The “Wild and Scenic” designation brings with it federal funds to help protect the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed and, by extension, the health of the Little Narragansett Bay estuary.
A Community-Wide Effort
The Wild and Scenic designation has been a huge effort by so many. Under the outstanding leadership of Denise Poyer from Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association, representatives from 11 towns in two states, state agencies from Rhode Island and Connecticut, federal agencies, and numerous environmental organizations, formed a study committee to conduct a three year study of these rivers. The study concluded with the development of a stewardship plan that outlined the Outstandingly Remarkable Values of these river systems. None of this would have been possible without the hard work of the committee members on the Study Committee.
Senators and Representatives from both Rhode Island and Connecticut not only led the charge in Congress to get initial funding for the study but also spearheading these final efforts to get the official designation. We owe great thanks to U.S. Senators Jack Reed (RI), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Chris Murphy (CT) and U.S. Congressmen Jim Langevin (RI), David Cicilline (RI) and Joe Courtney (CT) for their instrumental roles in this victory.
Save The Bay has been part of this endeavor since its beginning and will proudly remain involved as part of the newly formed Stewardship Council. For all of us involved, this is just the beginning. Now that the rivers have official Wild and Scenic status, we are now getting to the exciting part…continuing to work in partnership on the federal, state, and local level to implement local river protection projects and research and to ultimately make sure that our rivers remain protected into perpetuity!