Thursday, March 22, 2018

Return of the Kickemuit: From defunct water supply to healthy habitat?

By Rachel Calabro, former Riverkeeper

Once a clean drinking water supply for residents in Bristol and Warren, the eight-mile Kickemuit River has recently been plagued by water pollution that has rendered its water unsafe to drink and its habitat severely degraded. Today, Save The Bay is embarking on a project with local partners to restore Kickemuit water to its former glory. However, waning federal support for local environmental programs threatens the viability of the effort.

The Kickemuit River watershed covers parts of the towns of Rehoboth and Swansea, Massachusetts, and Warren and Bristol, Rhode Island. Originating in Rehoboth, the freshwater river flows into the Warren Reservoir in Swansea, then under interstate 195 and Route 6 to the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border, where it empties into the Upper and Lower Kickemuit reservoirs. The dam at the southern end of the Kickemuit Reservoir marks the boundary between freshwater and saltwater Kickemuit.

Algae-covered Kickemuit Reservoir photo
Algae on the Kickemuit reservoir impairs habitat and water quality.
Use of the river as a water supply began in 1882, when clean water was delivered directly from the river to 6,000 residents through 14 miles of cast iron pipes. By 1908, bacteria was discovered to be the source of cholera and other waterborne illnesses, and the Warren Water Treatment Plant was created to treat Kickemuit water with chlorine. Over the next several decades, growing problems with water quality and inadequate water supply went unaddressed until 1986, when the Rhode Island Legislature formed the Bristol County Water Authority (BCWA). BCWA was charged with rehabilitating and upgrading the water distribution system and eventually building a connection to the Providence Water supply system, which would provide a sufficient supply of quality water to the residents of Bristol County, while bypassing Kickemuit sources altogether.

The BCWA has maintained the old system as a backup while taking water from Providence, but water quality and habitat in the Kickemuit have deteriorated to the degree that it will no longer provide potable water. Both the Shad Factory Pond on the Palmer River and the Kickemuit Reservoir have filled in with sediment, while invasive plants and algae have also become concerns. The dams that keep this system intact are aging. 

Over the years, Save The Bay has worked with local, state and federal partners to build fish ladders on both dams, in an effort to support the return of migratory fish such as shad and herring. But when the fish make their way into the reservoirs, they find ponds with poor water quality and little spawning habitat. Save The Bay is now working with the BCWA to assess both the Shad Factory and Kickemuit Reservoir dams for potential removal, while the water authority pursues a new backup source of water. 

On the Shad Factory Reservoir, we are in our second year of a habitat assessment with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. We discovered a new infestation of Asian water chestnut, an invasive plant that can rapidly take over and cover the pond surface, as well as large amounts of invasive fan wort and other aquatic plants.

Photo of salt water flowing over dam at high tide.
Salt water flows into the Kickemuit reservoir at high tides.
On the Kickemuit Reservoir, we are providing technical assistance to the BCWA and its consultants on a flooding and sediment quality study. The lower Kickemuit dam is located in a flood zone, and at extreme high tides, water from the lower Kickemuit River flows upstream through the dam and into the pond. Sea level rise projections show that this dam will become flooded and that salt marsh will start to form along the edges of the reservoir. If the dams are removed, it would be possible to expand the natural flood plain and reduce local road flooding, while allowing new salt marsh to establish. 

Save The Bay’s habitat restoration work is almost always done in robust partnerships with other state and local agencies and organizations, and with grant support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others. Without this grant funding, organizations, cities and towns will find it very difficult to fund these kinds of water quality and habitat improvements. As it is, ensuring funding for local watershed restoration is difficult, in part because Rhode Island is a small state with smaller scale projects than other parts of the country. You can do your part by supporting the congressional delegations of Rhode Island and Massachusetts in their fight to defend the Clean Water Act and the funding programs on which the Narragansett Bay and its watershed depend. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Dam Removals in the Taunton Watershed bring new hope for the spring fish run

By Rachel Calabro, Riverkeeper

This past winter, Save The Bay participated in the removal of three dams from tributaries to the Taunton River, opening up miles of habitat to migrating fish and improving public safety around the aging structures. The three dams bring to six, the total number of dams removed in the Taunton River watershed, with more in the planning stages.
The 175-year-old Carver Cotton Gin Dam on the 5.5-mile Satucket River in East Bridgewater has been drained for many years, but it continued to impound water and limit fish passage. With the removal of this dam, river herring can now migrate up into East Bridgewater and into Stump Brook and access more than 650 acres of spawning grounds further down the waterway to the Atlantic Ocean, a migratory passage that hasn’t been open for more than a century. The Carver Cotton Gin Dam had previously been deemed a hazard by the Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety and labeled obsolete by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Removal of the dam not only opens up the Satucket River fish run, but also helps East Bridgewater weather heavy storms and precipitation, with the risk of dam failure eliminated.

Before West Britannia Dam removal.
The West Britannia Dam at the old Reed and Barton silversmith factory in downtown Taunton was the last of three dam removals on the Mill River, opening up the full length of the Mill River to herring for the first time in 200 years. Since the dam at Taunton State Hospital was removed in 2012 and the Whittenton Pond dam in 2013, river herring have returned in large numbers, along with such other species as sea lamprey. Removal of the three Mill River dams also reduces threats of dam failure and flooding downstream in downtown Taunton and will help improve water quality These before and after photos show the results of the new channel construction upstream of the mill.

After West Britannia Dam removal.

River herring, including alewife and blueback herring, are an important food source for cod, haddock, and striped bass, as well as marine mammal and birds. The herring migrate from saltwater to freshwater to spawn, and while there, they play an important role in water quality by contributing important nutrients. The Taunton River watershed has supported one of the largest herring runs in the region, but the thousands of dams installed for industrial-revolution-era factories have significantly fragmented the spawning and rearing habitat available. Today, river herring’s dwindling numbers have led them to be named a “species of concern” in the Greater Atlantic Region.

In East Taunton, the old wooden Barstow’s Pond dam on the Cotley River had been in such poor condition for many years that the Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety ordered its gates be opened and the pond behind it drained. The dam removal project here opens open eight miles of riverine habitat to river herring, American eels, seal lamprey and other native species. The dam was located in a highly sensitive area for historic Native American artifacts, and an archaeologist has been on hand to photograph the area. Much of Eastern Taunton along the edges of the Taunton River are believed to have been a complex of Native American villages dating back thousands of years. By restoring these rivers to their pre-industrial state, we are also preserving the landscape that was original to the area and restoring the fish and wildlife that were once plentiful.
These projects have been successful because of strong partnerships between local groups, federal and state agencies, and other partners. The high ecological value of the habitat in the Taunton watershed is part of the why the river has been designated a federal Wild & Scenic River.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Saving the Bay is just one summer camp away

By Julia Akerman, Communications Intern

Standing down at the Save The Bay docks, children’s laughter echoes in the distance. A fleet of four motorboats filled with ecstatic young sailors comes creeping towards the docks. The boats dock and unload the salty and sun-kissed children, all beaming with excitement from spending the morning studying the surface of the Bay from their sailboats. However, for the next week at Save The Bay, they’re about to dive down under and experience a whole new world. These lucky campers are the next generation of Bay stewards who will help Save The Bay accomplish its mission to improve and protect the Narragansett Bay.

Parading up to the classroom, the campers’ hands are occupied by lifejackets, backpacks and snack boxes. The day starts with a variety of fun activities, such as “Steal the Lobster” and a “Simon Says” game with an exotic pirate twist to it. The campers burst with laughter and energy as they run around the counselors in circles trying to avoid getting tagged. “We try to incorporate as many games as possible throughout the program because they’re just kids and sometimes kids just need to be kids.” said Hanna, a camp counselor at Save The Bay.

When play time is over, the campers head to the classroom to expand their knowledge about the Narragansett Bay. Teaching the campers about the Bay will instill an understanding of its importance and teach them how to protect it. The counselors divide the campers up into four groups: salt marsh, rocky shore, eelgrass and sandy beach, each representing the four types of environments found in the Bay. At each table, counselors place a bin filled with exciting examples of objects found in their environment along with an information card. They huddle together and read the card out loud to learn more about their environment.

Little do they know the counselors are about to put their knowledge to the test. “Alright! Who’s ready to play jeopardy?” Counselor Hanna exclaims to the class. Suddenly, the setting in the classroom changes. The young campers immediately put their game faces on and focus on only one thing, winning.

After an hour of testing their new knowledge about the Narragansett Bay it’s time for a field trip to apply their newfound knowledge to the real shoreline. The campers head out to the rocky shore, lugging big buckets and chatting non-stop with their new friends. The counselors send out the campers to collect any critters they can find. The campers look everywhere under rocks and shells hoping to find a little rocky shore critter.

A camper Natalie shouts with excitement, “I found one! I found one!” She proudly shows off the small Asian shore crab she’s holding in her hands. All the other campers swarm around Natalie, trying to hide how envious they are of her finding. Natalie places the crab in her bucket and continues her search to find more critters.

An incredible first day at the Edgewood Sailing Camp has to come to an end. The campers put any critters they found back into the Bay, and the counselors lead them back up to the classroom where they pack up their belongings. Day by day, these campers are slowly becoming the next generation of Bay stewards who will help Save The Bay ecologically restore the Narragansett Bay, for the next 50 years. One by one, their parents come in to pick them up. Luckily, for the campers, this is just the start of what they will remember as the best week of their summer.