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Kickemuit River Watershed


The Kickemuit River is one of four rivers flowing into Mount Hope Bay, the northeastern corner of Narragansett Bay. One of the smaller tributaries to Narragansett Bay, its watershed covers only 9 square miles in the towns of Rehoboth, and Swansea, MA, and Warren, and Bristol, RI. Originating in southeastern Rehoboth, the freshwater Kickemuit flows into the Warren reservoir in northern Swansea. From here, the river flows south under interstate 195 and then Rt. 6 toward the Mass. – RI border where it empties into the North and Kickemuit reservoirs. The Heath Brook tributary originates between I-195 and Rt 6 to the west of the mainstem Kickemuit. It flows south parallel to the Kickemuit and joins the mainstem just north of the Kickemuit reservoir. The dam at the southern end of the Kickemuit reservoir marks the boundary between the fresh and salt water Kickemuit. Through the remainder of the town of Warren and the northeastern portion of Bristol, the river is tidal.

Natural History


The watershed consists of nearly 300 acres of wetlands comprising 5% of its area. Numerous red maple swamps can be found throughout the upper freshwater watershed. Emergent brackish and salt marshes fringe the tidal portion of the river south of the Kickemuit reservoir. Wetland ecologist, Frank Golet points out specific wetlands that are particularly noteworthy. “The large, highly diverse freshwater wetland area located at the north end of the Warren reservoir is of statewide significance from the standpoint of wildlife habitat, while the 79 acre forested swamp east of Long Lane is one of the best examples of such habitat in the East Bay area.” Golet adds, “…special consideration should be given to wetland acquisition and the establishment of undisturbed upland buffer zones around wetlands in order to protect their multiple values.” (Golet, 1988).

Land Use

The majority of the watershed is still relatively undeveloped. Forest and open space cover 41 % of its area. But high-density residential lots cover significant portions especially in the towns of Warren and Bristol. The expansion of residential and commercial development has taken place principally at the expense of agriculture. Yet agriculture still comprises nearly 20% of land use in the watershed.

The majority of the watershed upstream of the Kickemuit remains largely open as forest with low density residential and some agricultural use interspersed throughout. One exception to this general land use pattern is the Smokerise Heights subdivision located in southern Swansea near the RI border. Occupying approximately 183 acres (3% of the watershed), this subdivision is comprised of very high-density residential housing. Below the Kickemuit reservoir, the watershed is largely residential along its western shore, while the eastern shore is evenly distributed between forest, residential, and agricultural land uses.

Water Quality

Nutrients and pathogens arise from a number of sources in the Kickemuit watershed. Failing septic systems, poor agricultural practices, excessive fertilizer use, even domestic animal and waterfowl waste all contribute to the high levels of nutrients and pathogens detected in the Kickemuit River. From these sources, nutrients and pathogens are released into surface and ground water, but where there is an abundance of impervious or hard surface this process is accelerated. Rather than infiltrating into the ground where it travels slowly, storm water falling on or flowing over impervious surface moves quickly into the nearest stream through storm drains, or surface runoff. So the combination of intense, polluting land uses with increased impervious surface together can have severe impacts on the Kickemuit River. Impervious surface associated with dense residential and commercial development in the towns of Warren and Barrington (Bristol) in the saltwater Kickemuit may already be negatively impacting water quality. Fortunately, the majority of the freshwater Kickemuit River watershed remains forested and contains little impervious surface. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MADEP) should consider the drinking water reservoirs in permitting development.

In 1990, the Kickemuit River, a treasure for the citizens and children of Bristol and Warren, was rightfully closed to shellfishing by DEM. The reason was given that Fall River, Massachusetts was causing the high fecal bacteria count in the Kickemuit River after rainfalls because of the combined sewer/storm water overflow from the Fall River sewers. The Kickemuit River Council began to investigate. The problem was compounded because the communities along the river were also causing the pollution. Since then, sewer lines have been constructed in Bristol and Warren along the westerly shore of the Kickemuit. Ordinances in both towns mandate tie-ins. Homes not tied in to the sewer system have been identified from out in the Mt. Hope Bay to Child Street. Tie-in are in progress in these areas. The drains that are still testing too high in fecal during heavy rains are being investigated. Booklets and quahog magnets on “Caring For Your Septic System” have been mailed to homeowners on the easterly shore. This project was made possible with the help of the RI Rivers Council, RIDEM, Save the Bay, Warren Boy Scout Troop 25, and the Kickemuit River Council. Since these improvements, the saltwater Kickemuit is open to shellfishing conditionally in dry weather.



This TMDL addresses water quality impairments in the Kickemuit River watershed associated with fecal coliform and excessive phosphorus loadings including excess algal growth/chlorophyll a, taste and odor, and turbidity. Waters in Rhode Island, including the Kickemuit Reservoir, the Kickemuit River, the Western tributary (Upper Kickemuit River) and the two unnamed RI tributaries are designated as Class A waters. The main stem of the river and tributary streams and reservoirs on the Massachusetts portion of the watershed are designated as Class B waters.

With the exception of the Warren Reservoir in Massachusetts, all reaches of the river and impoundments in Rhode Island and Massachusetts exceed the applicable water quality standards for fecal coliform bacteria. The reductions in bacteria loads in the river reaches range between 66% for the upper portion of the Lower Kickemuit Reservoir to more than 99% for the main stem of the river shortly before it enters Rhode Island.

The main stem of the river in Rhode Island is also impaired for nutrients. Total phosphorus load reductions to the Upper Kickemuit Reservoir and Lower Kickemuit Reservoir are 56% and 57%, respectively. Because an impairment exists in the downstream reservoirs, the Kickemuit River and Heath Brook in Massachusetts are also impaired for nutrients. The current load of phosphorus entering from the main stem of the river in Massachusetts and from two tributary streams in Rhode Island must be reduced by 53%, from 303 kg/yr to 142 kg/yr to allow the upper reservoir to meet the Rhode Island WQ standard for phosphorus. Similarly, the load from the Upper Kickemuit River (Western tributary) must be reduced by 59%, from 52 kg/yr to 19 kg/yr. The load reduction to the Lower Kickemuit Reservoir will be accomplished through a 52% reduction in the delivery of loads from upstream sources and a 30% reduction in loads from direct inputs and the Shad Factory Pipe source. MADEP needs to be especially vigilant in prohibiting development that will negatively affect the reservoirs.

Fish Restoration

In past decades, the Kickemuit River provided an important anadromous fishery, including alewife, salmonids and sturgeon. Then an impoundment was constructed to create a drinking water reservoir for the Town of Warren and nearby Bristol County communities. For a time, a spillway across the dam and manual dip-netting allowed some spawning to continue; however, anadromous fish populations have declined in recent years. As part of a regional effort to restore water quality in the Kickemuit Reservoir and the Kickemuit River, the purpose of the Kickemuit Reservoir Fish Ladder is to restore anadromous fish passage to the reservoir, particularly alewife, and enhance the connection between fresh and salt water ecosystems. Proximal to the project area is the Bristol County Water Authority's water supply intake. A protection device will be constructed as part of the project to guard juvenile fish attracted to the intake flows. The RI Division of Fish and Wildlife will provide 4 years of stocking, long-term maintenance, and monitoring for returning anadromous fish populations. Bristol County Water Authority will contribute a land easement for construction and O&M purposes, and the Kickemuit River Council will provide public informational publicity. The public and the Kickemuit River Council look forward to its completion.

Organizations and Links

Kickemuit River Council

The Kickemuit River Council (KRC) is an all volunteer, non profit 501(c)(3) representative organization founded in 1973 and dedicated to preservation, protection, and improvement of the river. The KRC was recognized by the Rivers Council in 2001. Council membership represents approximately 350 families and 10 organizations or neighborhoods. The KRC is composed of voting members from the organizations in the salt water portion of the Kickemuit. Each organization sends up to three voting members. The KRC is supported by grants, donations and fundraisers.

Major issues for the council from the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, MA include air and water pollution from the biocide Spectrol 1300, which negatively affects crustaceans in the bays. Rise in water temperature also negatively affects sealife, especially fish. It is time for the installation of a close system mandated by the EPA. Another concern is a proposal to site a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Fall River. DEM, Warren, and Bristol continue to help solve the “non-point” sources of water pollution, causing “wet weather” shellfish bed closures on the saltwater Kickemuit River.

The KRC is working to improve Kickemuit water quality by working to remove sewage discharges from the storm sewer system, restoring blue crab populations, removing invasive plants, carrying out river clean-ups, advocating for stricter regulation of the Brayton Point plant, opposing LNG development, and protecting the aquifer. The KRC encourages the improvement and protection of the Kickemuit River, informs and educates the public about the river, and serves as an advocate for the river, so that it may be enjoyed by future generations. 

Ann Morrill
Kickemuit River Council
P.O. Box 590, Warren, RI 02885

Informational Links