Monday, June 29, 2015

Climbing the ladder on the Ten Mile River

by Rachel Calabro, Community Organizer and Advocate for Save The Bay

Partners in the Ten Mile River Omega Pond fish ladder project
cut the ribbon at the official opening of the ladder.
After overcoming many technical challenges during design and construction, the Omega Pond fish ladder at the mouth of the Ten Mile River was finally completed, just in time for this year's spring fish run. Herring were waiting at the dam when the ladder was opened, and fish were seen making their way to Hunt's Mill where an annual fish count is done by volunteers.

Save The Bay's connection to this project began in 1996, when Paul Bettencourt, a local fisherman who began stocking the Ten Mile with river herring in the early 1960s  took Save The Bay's Director of Habitat Restoration Wenley Ferguson on a tour of the Seekonk River.
Wenley Ferguson, Save The Bay Director
of Habitat Restoration
While showing Wenley places where he used to fish for herring as a boy - places that have since been destroyed due to filling - Paul stopped at the Omega Pond dam and shared his vision of restoring a self-sustaining fish run to the lower Ten Mile River. Paul knew that the lower river could support herring, thanks to his efforts along with many other local fisherman who would scoop the herring up and over the Omega Pond dam each spring. His vision was to create fish ladders at three dams including the Omega Pond dam, so that herring could swim freely up to the Turner Reservoir where they could spawn. 

Save The Bay shared Paul’s vision with the City of East Providence, which owned two of the three dams at the time. The City quickly embraced the vision and became a partner. Dick Quinn, an engineer with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, completed a conceptual design for three fish ladders, which became the blueprint for the project.  To fund the ladders, the partnership began relatively small. The Department of Environmental Management, Save The Bay and the city of Providence secured matching funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study back in 2001. Due to the complexity of the project and the expense, the partnership then expanded to include many federal agencies including National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Adminstration, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with state and local partners including the Coastal Resources Management Council, the R.I. Saltwater Anglers Association and the Ten Mile River Watershed Council. 

While the planning, design and funding was being finalized, the annual spring fish-scooping event that Paul began in the 1960s became celebrations as more and more fish returned and several thousand fish were helped over Omega Pond dam. Construction on the first ladder began at the Hunts Mill dam in 2012, then the Turner Reservoir ladder and finally the Omega Pond fish ladder in 2014.

The Omega Pond fish ladder during construction.
Now that three fish ladders are in place, herring have three river miles and about 340 acres of habitat in which to spawn. They can now make their way to the Massachusetts state line, where they find the next dam at the Pawtucket Country Club. This dam is part of the Ten Mile River Reservation and owned by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has been supporting this project and provided fish from the Nemasket River herring run in Middleboro to stock the upper Ten Mile River and help maintain the run. 

Save The Bay will continue to work on this project and advocate for continued river restoration. Water quality improvements are still desperately needed as the upper Turner Reservoir and Central Ponds often experience blooms of toxic blue-green algae. The flow in the Ten Mile River, like many of the Bay's small tributaries, is dominated by wastewater effluent. The Attleboro treatment plant is under strict new permit limits, but nutrient pollution in stormwater runoff and from birds and wildlife is still contaminating the river. Opening up the fish passage is only part of the story. True habitat restoration will take work on many fronts, including water quality and stream habitat. We can now begin a dialogue with Massachusetts about additional restoration opportunities over the border, and the work is just beginning!