RICHMOND — Partners in the Pawcatuck River Fish Passage Restoration gathered under a tent in front of Kenyon Industries Monday to mark the completion of a project that in just five years has reversed centuries of environmental damage.
The project, a collaboration of more than 20 government agencies, corporations, private landowners and environmental groups, cost $4.2 million. On hand for the ceremony were members of the state’s congressional delegation who were responsible for securing the funding: Democratic Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Rep. James Langevin.
“This effort has opened up about 8 miles of river and access to recreation for sports men and women,” Reed said. “It’s also opened up about 1,200 acres for recreation. It’s enhanced the habitat of river herring, American shad and American eel, and in fact, I am told that this is the first time in about 30 years that fish will be able to swim from Worden Pond to Little Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound.”
Whitehouse, who, with other lawmakers had taken a tour of the three dams involved in the project, said he was delighted to see the river becoming healthy again.
“It’s terrific to see this river coming back to life in this way,” he said. “The best comments were from neighbors who welcomed the change — improved water quality, fewer snakes and fewer snapping turtles.”
Langevin said the Pawcatuck watershed was an example of the many natural outdoor places available to Rhode Islanders.
“Its rivers are a 45-minute drive from anywhere in Rhode Island; they’re easily accessible for things like family outings, field trips or study work by ecologists at universities. The completion of these fish passages will not only be a boon to our fisheries, it’s also going to provide flood mitigation and it will also help water quality, and expand recreational opportunities on the river,” he said.
The completion of the project means that fish runs that had been blocked from as far back as 1762 have been restored, more than 32 miles of habitat are now open to several species of migratory fish, and perhaps most significantly, Little Narragansett Bay and Worden Pond, the state’s largest body of fresh water, are now connected.
The dam at Lower Shannock Falls was removed entirely.
At Horseshoe Falls, the dam was left intact, but modified with the addition of a fishway and an eel pass. At Kenyon Mill, the dam was replaced with a natural fishway consisting of a series of pools and weirs, low structures that slow the flow of water.
Jim Turek, a restoration specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said each site had required a special approach.
“Lower Shannock Falls was co-owned by Charlestown and Richmond, and we had willing owners to remove the dam, so that’s the one we’re going to get the best passage on. When we got to the Horseshoe Falls dam, that’s an iconic feature in Rhode Island. It would have been extremely difficult to convince people that we should take out the historic structure, and so the solution we had on that was to build a fishway and eel pass, so we’re passing not only American shad and herring with the fishway, but eels with the eel pass,” Turek said. “At Kenyon Mill, we have a nature-like fishway. We were able to move the dam, but we kept the head pond because they needed it for fire suppression… It’s actually called a ‘pool and weir nature-like fishway.’”
John Bullard, NOAA Fisheries regional administrator, said eliminating the barriers to migrating fish would result in a healthier fishery.
“I occasionally get yelled at by angry fishermen who are yelling because there are not enough fish out in the ocean,” he said. “When we remove the blockages in rivers like the Pawcatuck so river herring and shad can get to their spawning grounds, that’s where we make fish.”
Chris Fox, Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association executive director, said the projects would benefit not only fish, but people, too.
“We not only restored historic migratory fish runs, we physically and legally improved the public’s ability to access and travel down the Pawcatuck River,” he said, noting that better flood resilience and improvements to water quality would also enhance public safety.
Sitting by himself, close to the river, was Carolina resident Irwin Pierce.
For more than 60 years, he said, he had watched the river go from a dumping ground to a natural asset worth protecting.
“It was a dump, not only for all the byproducts from all the mills along the river, it was the sewer for everybody who lived along the river,” he said. “The sewer pipes went right to the river. I’m happy that they’ve made people clean up their act.”