Friday, March 26, 2010

An Early Spring in the Bay

The osprey is back on its nest platform at the Bay Center! Warm weather in Rhode Island has brought an early return of migratory fish to Narragansett Bay. Fish were running this weekend, and more were seen today when I attended the fish count training for the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council at Rising Sun Mill. As soon as this ladder was constructed, a remnant run of fish was ready. This year will be the first year of a fish count, so we can get a good estimate of how many fish are returning. River herring were transplanted to the river in 2008, so next year's run should be even larger as the next generation of those fish reach maturity and return home to spawn.

An eel run has also been installed at this location (seen in the right of this photo). This portion of the ladder allows small eels or "elvers" to slither up a rough surface into the pond above. These elvers are about the size of a small pencil and will live and mature in the river for many years before returning to the sea to spawn.

Fish runs in the Narragansett Bay watershed have been hit hard in recent years, but last year was a stronger year with over 30,000 fish in Buckeye Brook in Warwick and over 45,000 fish at the Gilbert Stewart fish ladder. The Taunton River remains our largest fish run and has in the past supported two million fish. The cold weather this week may slow things down, but the run is in full swing. Formal fish counts will also begin this year at Shad Factory Pond in Rehoboth. If you would like to count fish at Rising Sun Mill in Providence, one more training will be held on April 3rd, 9:00 am at the fish ladder. Happy spring!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Water, water everywhere!

What happens when we develop in a floodplain? Well, we are seeing it right now. We expect flooding from the Blackstone River, and also from the Pawtuxet River, but it seems that we are seeing more and more of it. This land use photo comparison, given to me by the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, shows the development of the Pawtuxet River floodplain in the vicinity of the Warwick and Rhode Island Malls.

If you think about this area of our state, you may think about asphalt and lots of it. The Pawtuxet River is now what we would call a "flashy" river, because it rises and falls quickly with every rain event due to being surrounded by pavement. In the 1960's, the Army Corps of Engineers helped the City of Cranston purchase land along the river, buying up entire neighborhoods and removing the houses. This is land that today helps store flood water. The Natural Resource Conservation Service is currently working on more floodplain easement projects on the river that will reconnect the floodplain and provide additional flood storage. In addition, the removal of the Pawtuxet Falls dam will lower water levels in the area north of Pawtuxet Village, providing protection to some industrial properties.

The historic trend in New England has been towards large, extreme events and we need to do all we can to reclaim our floodplains. As I read the news reports and hear about the types of businesses being flooded - car salvage yards, nurseries with their fertilizers, industries, I think about the amount of hazardous material flowing into the Bay as well as the amount of economic loss that is occurring. We will recover from this storm, but we should do everything we can to be ready for the next one.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Failure of the Forge Pond Dam in Freetown is a Wake Up Call for Dam Owners

Last week, the Forge Pond dam on the Assonet River in Freetown came close to collapsing. The 300 year old dam is one of the most unsafe dams in Massachusetts and has been a target for removal for at least a decade. This dam was a chronic issue for the Office of Dam Safety, and the owner ignored fines and orders to fix or remove the dam. The owner died last year, leaving a derelict dam in the hands of state and local officials. While Dam Safety had removed the gates and lowered the pond, someone continued to plug up the dam and the pond reimpounded, spilling over and eroding the structure.

Most of the dam will now be removed by the state, creating a river channel that will allow fish passage. The dam directly downstream had the same owner and is also in extremely poor condition. We hope to work with the town to have that dam removed as well. Options for the first dam on the river also need to be explored, since the Assonet River is habitat for rainbow smelt - a protected species that is in decline. These fish spawn at the head of the tide on gravel stream bottoms. Dam removal will also open up this river for other migratory fish such as river herring and American eel.

Dams across the state are living on borrowed time, and many of our communities are at risk. These dams were built decades to centuries ago and many of them, perhaps most, no longer serve the function that they were built to provide. Closing our eyes to the problem doesn't make it disappear. The most cost-effective, permanent way for communities to solve the problems of unsafe dams is to remove them.

This near disaster comes less than five years after the failure of the Whittenton Pond dam in Taunton forced the evacuation of the downtown during a 2005 storm. That wake up call led to a state-wide review of dams in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island and much more aggressive enforcement by both dam safety programs. The states are doing their part of the job. This latest incident at Forge Pond highlights the need for dam owners to take personal responsibility and recognize their own liability.