Breakwater Preservation Conservancy (BPC) plans to use collaborative tools and best management practices in our effort to: restore critical wetlands, remediate water quality, and harness flood waters; by means of restoring riparian wetlands and renovating the network of historic dams across the Woonasquatucket River. This proposed process has several components; detailed in a Woonasquatucket Watershed Plan (WWP) and coincident Dam Restoration Strategy (DRS). Any options that exist for stakeholders come in the form of prioritizing potential outcomes within each municipality. Several outcomes are detailed here as options in BPC’s preliminary WWP and DRS.
1. Woonasquatucket Watershed Plan
a. Public Access.
Improving public access to waters on the Woonasquatucket includes creation of blue-ways for kayaking, boating, and fishing. For fishing, assure that there are designated fishing areas that are both desirable and accessible. If possible, encourage the creation of local beaches on pond areas when dams are kept. If removing a dam and creating a substantial large wetland or floodplain, allow for an area of land to be accessed by the public; either as a garden or a walking trail. Also, encourage habitats along existing trails for birdwatching or wildlife observation.
Plan community events that encourage environmental stewardship; such as picnics, guided trail walks, and plant or animal identification field lessons. Create an education component such that local students in schools get to visit parks, wetlands, walking trails, or gardens. Create community outreach days that incorporate watershed priorities and welcome participation, such as: tree planting events, amateur photography lessons, birdwatching tours, community cleanup days, or stargazing.
b. Water Quality.
In determining access to waters on the Woonasquatucket and planning watershed priorities that reflect each community’s desired use for the river, we must establish water quality goals. Water quality standards for freshwaters in the State of Rhode Island classify the condition of a waterbody according to what recreational activity the water’s quality will promote. For example, water that is clean enough for drinking, after appropriate treatment, is classified AA. Other classes include water that is swimmable, and water that is fishable. If a community wants to be able to swim in the water, the water must meet the corresponding water quality standard. Meeting the water quality standards that correlate to the community’s desired use is a logical starting point for a watershed plan. Some rivers will require nothing new to meet the standard, and will only require adequate maintenance. Other river segments will require a restoration project to bring the water quality up to the desired standard. The level of restoration varies depending on the current water quality condition and which water quality standard the community seeks to achieve.
c. Wetlands and Habitat
The wetlands along the Woonasquatucket River constitute a riparian buffer. The riparian buffer serves many purposes: it’s a critical habitat for many organisms, it prevents shoreline erosion, it lessens the impacts of flood events and it helps improve water quality. BPC suggests that in order to improve watershed conditions, the wetlands need to be assessed, monitored and properly maintained. The current extent of freshwater shoreline wetlands needs to be thoroughly identified, documented and catalogued; according to their current condition and their placement. Wetlands cannot be modified unless a permit is granted from the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and US Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE). In developing this WWP, BPC notes that there may need to be river modifications made in areas that change the current shoreline and the location of specific wetlands relative to the river. There will be a need to restore damaged wetlands; BPC also wants to encourage wetland creation. Increasing the riparian buffer in targeted areas will have positive impacts on water quality and habitat condition. BPC proposes a wetland enhancement program where the wetland buffer along the Woonasquatucket River is enhanced to constitute a habitat corridor for migration of wildlife populations.
d. Compensatory Mitigation
Wetlands cannot be destroyed unless they are built elsewhere to offset any loss, this concept has led to wetland banking, or compensatory mitigation. Wetlands can be created by a wetland bank, and later paid for by construction projects that disrupt wetlands elsewhere. Using this concept, wetland restoration and wetland creation can be financed. BPC supports creating a wetland bank within the framework of the watershed plan in order to acquire, restore, preserve, and monitor riparian wetlands. The regulator of wetland banks and compensatory mitigation is the ACOE. As a land trust, BPC supports the creation of riparian wetlands, financed by compensatory mitigation, in a manner that contributes to creating a habitat corridor. Currently, the ACOE does not list any cooperation with the state of Rhode Island in terms of regulatory agreements to conduct compensatory mitigation, but the New England ACOE does work with states in this region. This means that Rhode Island probably hasn’t passed the legislation necessary to regulate the operation of a mitigation bank. To get the ACOE to recognize a compensatory mitigation bank in RI would probably require an act of congress, but it would also set precedent the requirements for other compensatory mitigation operations in the state.
2. Dam Restoration Strategy
a. Dam Restoration and Dam Removal.
The DRS is pivotal to making substantial progress in the Woonasquatucket River Watershed. Dams are complex in their engineering, and their design causes very specific environmental impacts. We need to decide whether to keep the dams or not. BPC recognizes that some of the dams we will want to keep because we like them and they create ponds that people also like. Other dams are less significant, and some are downright obsolete. BPC states in the DRS that all the dams need to be assessed on a case by case basis. In doing so, we also need to decide exactly what we like about the dams and allow for those aspects to continue; while removing some of the dangers and risks that occur with too many dams that aren’t maintained properly.
A dam is a substantial infrastructure investment. Specifically, the dams on the Woonasquatucket River were built for the purpose of hydropower. Hydropower is a renewable energy resource and the only reason that hydropower is unpopular is because of environmental consequences that occur once they are built. The thing is, we already have dams; they were built nearly 150 years ago. Therefore, we already have adjusted to the impacts; by already having a dam, those impacts currently exist.  Today the dams aren’t used for their intended hydropower; it’s sort of a lose-lose situation: we suffer the negative environmental impacts of the dam, but we don’t use the dam as it was intended and collect hydropower. Basically, by having an existing dam, the hard work has already been done. Today, a hydropower generator can be installed on a dam through a process of permitting through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), in conjunction with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). There are rules and regulations that govern exactly how the hydropower can be generated without causing additional negative impacts. If a dam is going to be kept, BPC argues it’s only logical that those dams should be used for electricity. It not only meets green energy requirements, but the production of electricity can generate an income to support dam maintenance and other projects.
c. Flood Control
The DRS and wetland enhancement program is also a flood control strategy. First, safe dams that have been restored and are properly maintained are significantly less hazardous and pose less flood risk across the downstream portion of the watershed. This is a strategy that pays off, because risks posed by a dam breach are expensive and problematic. There is a possible consequence that if a dam fails, then the next consecutive dam downstream could breach in response. Ultimately, flooding in Providence is at the greatest risk. This is, in part, due to the fact that the river is channeled by impervious stone through Providence; meaning that there’s no delay in water level rise afforded by wetland plant and soil absorption. Second, as water level rises past flood stage, there's no natural detention area for flood water to go. BPC emphasizes that restored dams on the Woonasquatucket can be controlled remotely in such a way that dams release most of their retained water before a storm; then during the storm, dams release water slowly over the course of several days. Doing this across multiple dams in a sequence can delay, and even prevent, flooding in the city of Providence by waters from the Woonasquatucket River. Third, the creation of wetlands and floodplains along the river is a method of slowing the accumulation of flood waters and allows a natural area for the safe detention of floodwaters. Dams that are removed will generate an area of land where a pond once stood; this land can be areas for wetland creation and floodplains to address flood control problems.