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Collect baseline data
Arrange a task-group with agencies, and local 
Develop watershed priorities using  public stakeholder input
Begin implementation
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Text Box: Restore, Protect, Conserve
Know Your River! The Woonasquatucket River: Then and Now

    In Rhode Island, there runs the Woonasquatucket River, a 17-mile freshwater river that flows from headwaters in North Smithfield into Rhode Island’s capital city of Providence, where it joins the Moshassuck River to form the Providence River.  The Providence River is an 8-mile-long tidal river that empties into Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

    Nationally, the Woonasquatucket River was designated a National Heritage River in 1998.   Its significance dates to the river’s development during the early industrial revolution.  At peak development, the river system was a continuous series of dams, built to power adjacent mill buildings.    In this way, the Woonasquatucket and Blackstone Rivers were once two of the most intensively developed rivers in America.

    In Rhode Island, the Woonasquatucket is a river system with a rich cultural history.  Its early use as a travel route for Native Americans and later colonists predate the mill structures.  As a travel route, three Native American tribes settled in northern RI would walk along the river to get to locations where people could congregate and trade goods.  Early Native American culture would also have fished from the river and used its edges to settle along for protection.


    In Providence, Woonasquatucket River is easily identified as a landmark; as it’s the river that flows underneath the Providence Place Mall.  It’s also a part of the Waterfire lighting; delighting audiences of all ages.  We enjoy this river in many ways: in fishing at Stillwater Pond, in scenic trails and hiking destinations, in birdwatching and photography, in kayaking, in the Woony Bike ride, in conservation events or outings and, of course, in Waterfire festivities.

    The history of the Woonasquatucket River is important because it sheds light on what circumstances led to the river being the way it is now.  As it stands today, the river is not solely the result of natural processes, such as sediment transport and erosion, but the product of a centuries old engineering project to harness the waterbody for energy.  This is not to say there is no ecological function in the existing river, because it serves some functions, but not all functions reflect natural river processes.  Some ecological processes, such as continuity of water within the river passage- which is required for certain species of ocean fish to breed, are absent from the Woonasquatucket River because of the dams.  Another ecological element the Woonasquatucket River lacks in places, like Providence, is a naturally occurring shoreline.  The river channel in Providence is lined with stone and therefore all the benefits of having a wetland buffer or floodplain are lost.

    If we use environmental science as a tool to benefit our communities, we see that we can use naturally occurring water retaining processes to assist our engineering projects in flood prevention.  For example, if we removed some high hazard dams, then we can plant in the area that was once a pond to and make it a floodplain or wetland, which reduces the downstream effects of a storm surge.  Additionally, flood risks due to hazardous dams could be eliminated with a program to systematically evaluate which dams to keep and restore and which to get rid of; with corresponding actions taken to address each dam.  On top of that, restored dams can regulate their water level; meaning that a storm surge resulting from high rainfall events can be stored in ponds by dams and released slowly over time to prevent floods downstream in the city of Providence.  Although dam projects are costly, also costly is a comprehensive watershed plan; in the case of the Woonasquatucket River, both a watershed plan and dam restoration strategy coincide as necessary projects in order to rescue the river from entropy and decay.

    The bounty of the early industrial revolution has since faded; once coal powered steam engines were developed, mills no longer required hydropower and no longer needed to cite their plants on a river.  The mills left New England, but their infrastructure: the dams and the development of an industrialized river network, remain to this day.  Also, remnants of the mills' industry exist today as toxic pollution that continues to affect certain sections of Woonasquatucket River.  BPC supports the use of treatment wetlands and engineered cleaning systems that use plants to remediate many pollutants, but some more serious chemicals require phase II treatment.

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Text Box: January 31, 2019

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