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. 

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