Where Have All The Rivers Gone?

Where Have All the Rivers Gone?

by Kate McPherson, Riverkeeper

I’m debating whether to open the seal on the handwarmer in my pocket on this brisk October morning, as I realize I won’t be able to wear gloves and enter data into the tablet handed to me by Stefan Bengtson, scientist at Fuss & O’Neill. We are deep in the headwaters of the Woonasquatucket River watershed in Glocester this morning, and the fall colors on the red maples, hickories, sassafras and white oak are stunning. I pull my hip waders up, jump into the small stream that’s flowing under Cooper Road and take a look at the pipe that the stream water is flowing through.

We are assessing road-stream crossings as part of Rhode Island’s River and Stream Continuity Pilot Project. Rivers and streams provide vital links connecting upland, wetland, and aquatic ecosystems. In addition to providing wildlife habitat, wetlands provide a whole slew of functions and values associated with water quality, flood mitigation, and aesthetic and heritage value. But there is growing concern about the role that road-river crossings have in altering important habitats and ecosystems. Sure enough, as I’m snapping photos and taking measurements, I quickly realize this stream is far wider than the 12-inch-diameter pipe. Stefan points out that the water flows shallower and more quickly through the pipe, making it difficult, if not impossible, for aquatic organisms like fish, invertebrates and salamanders to travel through.

This small stream probably dries up during the hottest periods of summer, but streams like this one provide more area of habitat for aquatic organisms than large rivers. They are highly productive systems that transport invertebrates and organic matter that fuel downstream food webs. I’ve learned that cold-water fish move up into headwater streams to escape warmer downstream conditions, and that fish will spawn in an intermittent stream that does not flow all year. Aquatic organisms depend on movement throughout the river system, including upstream and downstream, to survive.

It’s now early afternoon and the toasty chemical reaction producing warmth in my in my pocket has worn off. Although the sun is brightly shining, the water is cold, and I promise myself I’ll wear a second pair of wool socks with my waders next time. We’ve moved on to a new tributary stream in Johnston, and we’re starting near the origin of the stream. Stefan comments that the next 10 or so pipes, (also called culverts) will all be in this stream, and that we’ll really get to know it.

At the first crossing, the road has altered the natural wetland hydrology, creating areas of standing water in the swamp northwest of the road. It is vegetated with wetland species like buttonbush, swelled-up sedge, red osier dogwood, willow, alder and cattail. Fallen leaves in red, brown, and yellow have collected on the water surface, and it looks like good habitat for muskrat. Downstream, the river tumbles through a wooded and rocky area. The tree canopy completely shades the river here, and it’s beautiful. As I’m helping to pack up the survey equipment, I reflect that this crossing is sadly not passable for aquatic organisms due to the unusual inlet that drops down into the culvert.

The next downstream crossing is only a few hundred feet away through the woods, and I notice the wild turkeys immediately. We count 13 as they lazilly stretch their wings and unhurriedly walk back upstream. Non-aquatic wildlife will use river and stream corridors, called riparian zones, to travel to new habitat and find new territory. In developed areas, rivers like this often represent the only available travel corridors for many wildlife species. If an animal can’t get through the culvert or under the bridge the water flows through, then they are forced to cross the road where they are at risk of colliding with cars.

Storm drain
A stormdrain and road lie where a Woonasquatucket headwater once flowed.

Although the crossings we’ve assessed today are not great for aquatic organism travel, the habitat in the stream itself appears to be good quality for aquatic organisms, with a diverse substrate (sand, gravel, silt, leaves, and larger rocks called cobble), some woody debris (sticks, bark, branches), and vegetation overhanging the banks (shades water, keeping the temperature down). So as we arrive at the next crossing, my heart sinks in my chest. We are in the right spot but all I can see is pavement, houses, and mown lawns. No sign of the river anywhere. I look for the low point in the road and see an inlet that appears to be a place for stormwater to enter a drainage system. I crouch down to listen and hear the river, under the yard, under the road. The next street is the same, and the next, and the next.

River After Neighborhood
A stretch of river in the Woonasquatucket headwaters were lost due to draining, filling, and development when built in between 1962 and 1981, in an era before wetland protection in Rhode Island.

The policy for over 120 years in the United States was to drain wetlands. Over half of wetlands, approximately 116 million acres in the lower 48 states, were lost due to draining, filling, and development between 1780 and 1980. Sadly, this stretch of the river has fallen to the same fate. This neighborhood was built between 1962 and 1981, and this wetland is one of the casualties of an era before wetland protection in Rhode Island.

Understanding the importance of wetlands, in July 1971, Rhode Island passed the Freshwater Wetlands Act, only the second such law passed in the country at the time, and authorized the Department of Environmental Management to preserve and regulate the freshwater wetlands of the state for the public benefits that they provide. 

River Before Neighborhood
The same river in 1939, before development.

I am grateful that today’s regulations for wetlands, rivers, and streams would prohibit this type of massive development. After this day assessing culverts at the top of the watershed, I can plainly see there is much work to be done. Every culvert we’ve assessed today was placed prior to the Freshwater Wetlands Act, when the primary concern was simply moving water from one side of the road to the other. The first step is identifying the worst of the worst, the damaged, broken, or collapsed crossings, and then together, let’s work to improve the mistakes of the past.


The North Atlantic Connectivity Collaborative

Dahl, T.E. 1990. Wetlands Losses in the United States, 1780s to 1980s. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, DC. 21pp.

Wipfli, M.S. & Gregovich, D.P. 2002. Export of invertebrates and detritus from fishless headwater streams in southeastern Alaska: implications for downstream salmonid production. Freshwater Biology (2002) 47:957-969