The Blackstone River flows 46 miles from the city of Worcester,
Massachusetts to Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Its winding course is
a living tie that binds the forests, fields and streams of the watershed
with the tidal waters of Narragansett Bay-uniting two states, 40
cities and towns, and nearly 500,000 citizens in a shared environmental
history and destiny.
Through thirty years of hard work, citizens, grass-roots organizations,
and local governments-helped by federal and state agencies-have
made great strides in cleaning up the Blackstone. A river that once
ran foul with textile dyes and mill waste has become a regional
destination and source of economic revitalization. Cyclists cruise
its bikeways, ecotourism boats ply its waters, and communities restore
forgotten waterfronts. In 1986, Congress recognized the Blackstone's
importance, designating it one of 14 American Heritage Rivers nationwide.
There's a big piece missing, however, from the Blackstone River's
renaissance. Before industrialization, the Blackstone supported
annual spawning runs of migratory fish-herring, shad and salmon-that
swam upstream from Narragansett Bay each spring, far into the rivers,
lakes and ponds of the watershed. More than a century ago, the fish
runs were wiped out, primarily by dam construction for industry
and water supply.
In 2002, a group of stakeholders and scientists led by the Narragansett
Bay Estuary Program developed a fisheries
restoration plan and historical study for the lower Blackstone. The study estimates
that fish passage restoration at the first four dams on the river
will produce returns, on average, of more than a million river herring
and more than 20,000 American shad annually. Restoration of these
fish runs will:
- Improve fresh-water recreational fisheries by increasing forage
for game fish such as largemouth and smallmouth bass, trout and
- Benefit watershed wildlife by providing food for herons, ospreys,
otters, mink and other native birds and mammals;
- Improve recreational and commercial fisheries in Narragansett
Bay by boosting saltwater herring schools, supporting striped
bass, bluefish and other sportfish;
- Benefit the region's economy-recreational fisheries generate
an estimated $75 million annually in Rhode Island alone;
- Benefit the communities of the watershed with an important new
opportunity to celebrate the river environment, as people flock
to see the annual fish runs-providing new opportunities for stewardship,
education and public access to the Blackstone River.
Over the past year, the project has gained momentum thanks to the
efforts of local stakeholders such as the Blackstone
River Watershed Council, Blackstone
Valley Tourism Council, Blackstone
River Watershed Association, and Slater
Mill, Inc.. Federal and state agencies such as the Natural
Resources Conservation Service, R.I.
Department of Environmental Management, U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service and Blackstone
River Valley National Heritage Corridor are providing critical
funding and resources. Also essential is the support of other non-governmental
partners such as Save
The Bay, Inc.,, the R.I.
Corporate Wetlands Partnership and, of course, NBEP.
The Blackstone restoration is highly innovative insofar as we're
working to integrate the goals of ecosystem restoration and carbonless
energy production. The lower Blackstone is home to several hydroelectric
facilities-in some cases, the same dams that obstruct fish passage
also produce clean energy. NBEP laid the foundation for a ground-breaking
effort to work with, rather than against the hydroelectric operators
in restoring the river.
At present, we're evaluating alternatives to allow river herring
shad to migrate upstream over the first four dams on the lower
Blackstone River. On the first, second and fourth dams (Main Street
in Pawtucket, Slater Mill in Pawtucket, and Valley Falls in Central
Falls, R.I.) we expect that denil
fish ladders will be the best option for fish passage. For the
third dam upstream, Elizabeth Webbing Mills, NBEP proposed the idea
of purchasing and removing the dam, which the state is now pursuing.
The entire restoration is expected to cost about $3.5 million.
Roughly $2.5 million of that total has been earmarked by the USDA
Natural Resources Conservation Service under the Wildlife
Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP). WHIP is an excellent fit with
our collaborative approach-the program is designed to work with
private landowners (in this case the dam owners) to restore habitat.
Roughly $1 million in match funding will be necessary to complete
the project. The project partners are currently seeking these dollars
from federal and non-federal sources. Once we've secured all necessary
funding, we believe that migratory shad and herring can be restored
to the lower Blackstone River by 2010.
Main Street Dam in Pawtucket, R.I., at the mouth of the river
Slater Mill Dam in Pawtucket
Elizabeth Webbing Mills dam in Central Falls, R.I.
Valley Falls dam in Central Falls