EXETER — Gathered under a shelter beside the Wood River on a rainy Monday morning, legislators, town officials, environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts celebrated the designation of the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed as one of the nation’s Wild and Scenic river systems.

The Wood-Pawcatuck is the first river system in Rhode Island to receive the Wild and Scenic designation, which provides access to federal funds to protect the rivers in the 300-square-mile watershed, including the Beaver, Chipuxet, Green Fall-Ashaway, Queen-Usquepaugh, Pawcatuck, Shunock, and Wood rivers. The watershed is also the sole-source drinking water aquifer for thousands of people in southern Rhode Island and Connecticut.

The product of successful long-term, cross-border collaboration, the initiative began 10 years ago and involved the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut, 12 towns, and members of the congressional delegations of Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Denise Poyer, former Wild and Scenic Rivers coordinator with the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, was recognized at the event with a standing ovation for spearheading the effort and seeing it through.

“The reason we did the work was not just because the rivers are really special,” she said. “More importantly to me is that these are rivers that we haven’t screwed up too much yet, and we need to really be aware of that and take these rivers and protect them and hopefully restore them to as much of a natural condition as possible so that people in the future will be able to have access to these rivers that are natural and wild.”

The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Wild and Scenic River Act was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and co-sponsored by U.S. senators Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Christopher Murphy, D-Conn.

“We have had a collaboration that mirrors your collaboration as a group, and that has been the key to success,” Reed told the guests.

Sponsors in the House of Representatives included Democratic representatives James Langevin and David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Joe Courtney of Connecticut.

Courtney described the designation as the result of grass-roots persistence rather than political lobbying.

“There was no super PAC,” he said. “There was no Wood-Pawcatuck lobbyist. The fact of the matter is, this got done the old-fashioned way, the way it’s supposed to be, which is citizenship engagement and persistence in making sure this was not forgotten.”

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said the watershed was a unifying force for the entire region.

“The rivers don’t divide us, they bring us together, and that’s what’s happened here” he said. “Two states, multiple towns, one goal and objective: to preserve and protect this asset.”

Representatives from several towns, including Charlestown, Richmond, Hopkinton and Westerly, also attended the event.

“The Pawcatuck River is our northern border the whole length of the town and we’ve worked hard having representatives on the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, worked with our congressional representatives, both state and federal,” Charlestown Town Council President Virginia Lee said. “I’m very excited for this day.”

Southern Rhode Island Conservation District Executive Director Gina Fuller said the conservation community has been united in the effort to obtain the designation.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for the community to come together around conservation and a long-term plan for our watershed,” she said.

Former Westerly Town Council member Jean Gagnier said protecting the watershed would benefit the entire region.

“It will mean that many more people will get to learn about our area and come to visit, and when you do that, Westerly is there as a hub,” he said.

The next step in the Wild and Scenic process is the creation of the new Stewardship Council, with representatives from both states, the 12 towns and several environmental organizations. Kassi Archambault, rivers coordinator at the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, said the council will monitor activities and research in the watershed.

“Think of this as eyes and ears on the river,” she said. “There will be projects to enhance and preserve these rivers over time,” she said.

Federal funding at risk

The Wild and Scenic designation is the result of the approval of a bipartisan public lands package that permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The lands package created about 1.3 million new acres of wilderness area and adopted more than 100 public land and water initiatives including the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Wild and Scenic River Act.

However, even though President Trump signed the reauthorization for the program’s funding in March, he has also proposed slashing the budget of the National Park Service portion of the public lands package by 97 percent, or $164 million, which would leave Wild and Scenic programs unfunded.

Reed, Whitehouse and Langevin agreed that it would be up to Congress to ensure that the funding continued.

“We have to, on a bipartisan basis, fix the budget the president sent out so we can invest in this program as well as many others,” Reed said. “It’s not particular to this watershed. It’s all across the country.”

Whitehouse said he was confident that Congress would would be able to preserve the funding.

“We’ve just been working it out in Congress,” he said. “There’s that old saying that Congress has the power of the purse. Well, we’ve been using the power of the purse and it has kept programs like this very solidly funded, and as long as that continues, I think they’ll continue to be.”

Langevin pledged to work to ensure that funding would continue.

“It’s now important to ensure that funding for the Wild and Scenic river systems is there, is preserved and they’re not zeroed out,” he said. “Certainly, if the Trump administration had their way, there are a lot of important environmental projects that would fall by the wayside. We can’t allow that to happen and we’re going to fight hard to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

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