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Restoring Anadromous Fisheries

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Blackstone River Watershed

Map of Aquidneck Island WatershedLocation

Originating as a series of streams in the hills of Worcester, the Blackstone River flows 48 miles south into Rhode Island, dropping 450 feet before emptying into Narragansett Bay near Providence. The Blackstone River Watershed comprises a total of 640 square miles, with 382 square miles located in south central Massachusetts and 258 square miles in northern Rhode Island. The length of the mainstream Blackstone River is evenly divided between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with 24 river miles in each state. The major tributaries of the Blackstone River are the Quinsigamond, West, Mumford, Mill, and Peters Rivers. 1,300 acres of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs are also located within the watershed.

Twenty-nine Massachusetts municipalities and ten Rhode Island municipalities are located either entirely or partially within the Blackstone River Watershed.

Natural History

The Blackstone Valley was formed by glacial action about fifteen thousand years ago, during the Laurentide Glaciation. Glacial meltwater flowed through the trench that had been created, thus beginning the process of erosion which has gradually shapes the course of the Blackstone River.

The hydrological source of the Blackstone River is located at an elevation of 1,300 feet on the slopes of Asnebumskit Hill near Holden, Massachusetts, from which it travels south into Rhode Island and eventually empties into Narragansett Bay. The headwaters of the river - wetlands and brooks feeding into the river stream - are found throughout the city of Worcester and beyond, many of them now buried into culverts. Along its way, the river drops a total of 430 vertical feet, and passes through the second and third largest population centers of New England: Worcester, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island. The Blackstone River drainage system is one of the seven major river systems of the northeast.

The Blackstone River, its tributaries, banks and floodplains have provided a rich habitat for flora, fish and wildlife. The river served as an invaluable natural resource to the first settlers of the region, Native Americans, who established semi-permanent settlements in the valley, and took advantage of its fertile soils and abundance of salmon. Later, by the mid-17th century, European settlers began establishing small agrarian communities in the Valley. At the end of the 18th century, the area was still predominantly rural and agrarian, but after the Revolutionary war, processing and manufacturing became increasingly important to the Valley's economy. The Blackstone River Valley's abundant resources were then used to quarry minerals, harvest timber, support grist mills, and make leather and metal products. It wasn't until the 19th century, however, that the river began to be systematically harnessed for its power.

Modern History

A series of steep drops along the length of the Blackstone River provided ideal conditions for the development of water powered industry. Samuel Slater arrived in America in 1790, with managerial experience and technical knowledge of textile manufacturing in England. With the assistance of local merchants and artisans, he helped establish the first successful water-powered textile mill in America. Slater Mill was established on the Blackstone River, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. This achievement is credited with spawning the birth of America's industrial revolution. Development of the Slater textile mill catalyzed the development of water-driven technology throughout the length of the Blackstone River. By 1914 water-powered mills occupied all of the readily available dam sites in the Valley. This was perhaps the first major ecological impact brought on by human use of the resource. The construction of dams along the Blackstone River served to prevent the migration of anadromous fish up the River from Narragansett Bay. The landscape of the Valley was forever altered by the proliferation of mills. Mill villages sprang up along side the River, and dams, mill ponds, a railroad, and canal were subsequently built to support the manufacturing process.

The Blackstone River’s history of intense industrial development left its waters polluted and its course altered. Industrial activity and accompanying settlement left the river severely polluted with untreated sewage, detergents, solvents, heavy metals and other industrial wastes. The presence of numerous dams, canals and other human interventions means that little remains of its natural, free-flowing state. A 1990 report sponsored by the EPA described the Blackstone River “the most polluted river in the country with respect to toxic sediments.” While toxic sediments trapped behind industrial-era dams continue to impact the long-term health of the River, considerable water quality improvements have been achieved as a result of the Clean Water Act and other pollution reduction initiatives. The Blackstone River became a part of the National Heritage Corridor system in 1986 and was designated as an American Heritage River in 1998.

Water Quality

The water quality of the Blackstone River, though impoverished by over a century of industrial pollution, has made a comeback due to federally mandated clean water standards starting in the 1970's. Local cleanup initiatives are not sufficient, however, to remedy residual industrial-related conditions, such as toxic sediment buildup behind dams. Environmental remediation at the federal level needs to include supporting land use decisions made at the local level. Non-point source pollution (runoff from many sources) from development occurs when excavations are conducted without proper sediment containment, where there is excessive storm water runoff, and when certain landscaping maintenance practices are used. Both surface and groundwater are affected by non-point source pollution.

The Blackstone River has come a long way, but it is still not considered safe to swim in the river or to consume fish from the river. However, it is safe for canoeing and kayaking. Many individuals, groups, and organizations are working to improve the water quality of the river and to improve its rating to a class B river.


The nutrient (nitrate and orthophosphate) category contained the most red (poor) and orange (fair) grades. The report card shows the majority of the Headwater Tributaries had grades of red (poor) or orange (fair). All sites on the mainstream received a red (poor) grade. None of the tributary sites in the mid-reach and southern part of the watershed received a red (poor) grade.


Twelve sites received a red (poor) grade for chemical impairment. The majority of those only experienced one, or two low dissolved oxygen levels, which occurred during July, August and September.


Pathogen impairment has been documented at numerous locations throughout the Blackstone River watershed. Pathogen impaired river segments represent 56.6% of the total river miles assessed (64.4 miles of 113.8 assessed). One hundred thirty-two segments are classified as lakes, none of which are pathogen impaired. In total, eleven segments, each in need of a TMDL, contain indicator bacteria concentrations in excess of the Massachusetts WQS for Class A or B water bodies (314 CMR 4.05)1 and/or the MADPH standard for bathing beaches.


The watershed is divided into three regions.


The Blackstone River TMDL will include information on pathogen, nutrient, and biodiversity impairments on the river.

In 2001, RIDEM contracted with The Louis Berger Group to characterize water quality conditions and pollution sources causing impairments of the Blackstone, Mill, and Peters River, Valley Falls Pond, and Scott Pond, in support of the development of TMDLs for each water body. In January 2002, key stakeholders in the watershed were brought together to form a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) to provide additional review of key project deliverables as they are completed by the contractor and submitted to RIDEM. The first phase of the assessment project, to compile existing water quality and pollution source data including land use data for the Rhode Island portion of the Blackstone River watershed and to identify data gaps, was completed in the spring of 2004. The primary goal of the second phase of the TMDL is to obtain the information needed to develop TMDLs for the identified impairments. Because the Blackstone River is also a major nitrogen source to the Providence and Seekonk Rivers (listed as impaired for nutrients (nitrogen), low dissolved oxygen, and excess algal growth/chlorophyll-a), data to assess nitrogen loading and attenuation will also be collected. Additionally, phosphorus data will be collected to support assessment of biodiversity impacts, future NPDES permit issuance and the significance of phosphorus loading from the Blackstone River on the Valley Falls and Scott Ponds impairments. LINK TO REPORT


A comprehensive water quality monitoring plan has been developed and preparation of the QAAP is nearing completion. The comprehensive monitoring effort is expected to begin in Fall 2004 and continue for a 12-month period. The final phase of the project entails data analyses and determination of necessary load reductions. It is anticipated that the final report characterizing water quality in the targeted water bodies will be completed and submitted to RIDEM in 2007. This report will serve as the technical basis of the resulting TMDLs to be III.A-18.

Water quality of the Blackstone River is currently monitored by the Blackstone River Coalition and its volunteers. Tests measure dissolved oxygen, nitrates, phosphates, temperature, pH, turbidity, bacteria. Sampling occurs at designated sites on the second Saturday morning of every month from April through November. Data will be used to develop the Blackstone Watershed Water Quality Report Card.

The Campaign for a Fishable-Swimmable Blackstone River by 2015: In order to marshal the resources to actually clean up the Blackstone River, in 2003 the Blackstone River Coalition launched the Campaign for a Fishable/Swimmable Blackstone River by 2015. To build a roadmap for the Campaign, the BRC is working with federal, state and local agencies, as well as non-profit organizations, academic institutions and businesses to create a bi-state watershed action plan.

Fish Restoration

A fish restoration plan has been developed by the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program (NBEP) and the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife (RIDFW) with extensive input from the Blackstone River Fish Restoration Steering Committee. The plan defines a strategy for restoring river herring and shad to the Blackstone River in Rhode Island. One of the primary impediments to the restoration of anadromous fish such as herring and shad in the Blackstone watershed is the presence of numerous dams, which prevent fish from migrating from Narragansett Bay into the Blackstone River. In the lower four miles of the river, four existing dams block access to upstream habitat. Restoration efforts focus specifically on providing upstream fish passage at these facilities as well as measures to protect out -migrating juvenile fish. Restoration of anadromous fish to the Blackstone River represents one component of a larger strategy to restore ecological functions and values to Narragansett Bay. Restoration of anadromous fish to the Blackstone River would provide substantial ecological benefits for the Blackstone River watershed and the Narragansett Bay Ecosystem, as well as economic benefits for the communities of the Blackstone Valley and beyond.

Organizations and Links

Blackstone River Watershed Council

The Blackstone River Watershed Council (BRWC) was formed in 1998 under the coordination of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and became an independent organization in 2005. The BRWC was recognized by the Rivers Council in 2002. The Board has representatives from each of the nine cities and towns located in the watershed, as well as representatives from local, state and federal environmental and economic agencies. There are 24 members and over 500 volunteers working with the BRWC.

Frank Matta, President
P.O. Box 8068
Cumberland, RI 02864

Informational Links