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Saugatucket River Watershed

Map-Saugatucket River Watershed


The Saugatucket watershed consists of 20,100 acres that stretch across the towns of Narragansett, North Kingstown, and South Kingstown. Portions of the watershed are coastal, influencing many of the water bodies with tidal flow. The Saugatucket River, for example, remains tidal up to the Main Street dam in Wakefield. The Saugatucket River, for which the watershed was named, is a 7.5 mile stretch of river that begins in the Shermantown area of North Kingstown, runs through South Kingstown and empties into Point Judith Pond. The Saugatucket River watershed has five tributaries and seven ponds or lakes.



Natural History


The topography of the Saugatucket River watershed is largely the result of the northward retreat of the Wisconsin Glaciation that occurred about 12,000 years ago (Soil Conservation Service, 1981). The watershed is mostly made up of gentle slopes down which water flows into the river.

Geology and Soils

The surficial geology of the Saugatucket River watershed is also a result of erosion and deposition that occurred during the Wisconsin Glaciation (Soil Conservation Service, 1981). The soils in this area were formed largely from glacial material deposited here, specifically: glacial outwash -- which is stratified sand ,gravel and silt -- and glacial till, nonstratified glacial drift which consists of sand, clay,silt and boulders. Glacial deposition resulted in a diversity of soils in this area, and it also interrupted much of southern Rhode Island's drainage patterns, which caused this area to contain many poorly drained soils (SK 1992).

The movement of water through soils provides an important opportunity for treatment of pollutants through several physical, chemical and biological processes. Processes include infiltration, adsorption, ion exchanges, formation of compounds, biodegradation of contaminants, and biological transformation. (For specific information about these processes see Barcelona et al, 1982; Cantor and Knox, 1985 ;Soil Conservation Service, 1981; or Horsely and Witten, 1994). There are many different types of soils in the Saugatucket River watershed, and each has different capabilities for conducting these processes.

The Rhode Island Soil Survey has identified characteristics of soils which indicate constraints for use of septic systems, including: percolation rate, slope, wetness, and depth to groundwater.

Water Bodies

There are seven major lacustrine environments (that is, lakes or ponds) in the Saugatucket watershed. One of these, Saugatucket Pond, is an impoundment created by a dam in the Saugatucket River at Peace Dale Village. Five others -- Indian Lake, Rocky Brook Reservoir, Peace Dale Reservoir, Asa Pond and Indian Run Reservoir -- are impoundments in the river's tributaries. The seventh lacustrine environment, Silver Lake, lies within the watershed but does not have a surface outlet flowing into the river.

The Saugatucket is also dammed at downtown Wakefield, just over a mile downstream from the Peace Dale Village dam. The water between these two dams moves slowly, but has more riverine characteristics than lacustrine. The downtown Wakefield dam occurs about one mile upstream from the point at which the Saugatucket enters Point Judith Pond. Point Judith Pond is an estuarine environment -- an embayment with a mix of salt and fresh water. Upper Point Judith Pond is greatly influenced by the Saugatucket River (Salt Pond Coalition, 1994), which flows into Silver Spring Cove.

Visual assessments of Saugatucket Pond found that aquatic plant growth in the pond is very lush and thick. It is dominated by two species: water lilies and fanwort ( Cabomba caroliniensis), a submerged aquatic plant commonly used in aquariums. Oxygen necessary to support fish and other aquatic life is reintroduced into water bodies by a process known as oxygenation. Ibis results from movement of water, caused by such phenomena as blowing of wind, downhill flow of streams and waterfalls. Dense surface vegetation on a water body will diminish amounts of oxygen that can be introduced.


It is important to note that three rare species of aquatic plants have been identified in the Saugatucket watershed. These include two plants of state interest: tickseed sunflower and featherfoil, as well as one state endangered species: Long's bitter cress. Measures to preserve these valuable plants should be considered. As recently as 1968 there was another rare plant found in the watershed: bloodroot. In 1899, painted cup, another rare plant was also in this area. Inattention to the fragile nature of these plants led to their disappearance.

Wildlife and Fish

Although wildlife are sometimes contributors to pollution problems, most often they are recipients of anthropogenic (human-generated) pollution. Issues of particular concern in the Saugatucket River system are: 1) whether amounts of dissolved oxygen will remain high enough to support all the species of fish that make their home there, and 2) whether sufficient amounts of appropriate habitat will remain undeveloped for the wildlife that inhabit the Saugatucket watershed.

The presence of three distinctive water systems in the Saugatucket and its tributaries ( lacustrine, riverine and tidal systems) provides an unusual range of habitat diversity for such a small river system. The quick-flowing areas of the Saugatucket are cool enough and contain enough dissolved oxygen to support trout and other cold-water fish (Castro, 1994). The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management's (RIDEM) current records show there are 13 species of fish in the Saugatucket, but that number may be incomplete ( Enis, 1994). Close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean has allowed for anadromous fish, such as alewives and American eels to make Saugatucket Pond their spawning grounds. These species return each year to the Saugatucket. The eels migrate to the river from the Sargasso Sea (just northeast of the West Indies). The trip upstream past the Wakefield and Peace Dale dams is facilitated by two fish ladders, which are maintained by RIDEM.

RIDEM has counted 88 bird species that nest in the Saugatucket watershed (RINHP, 1994a). Average home-range areas of five species of birds known to nest in the Saugatucket River watershed range from .23 to 1.6 acres, with an average of .99 acres. If the average requirement were measured as a square, each side would be 208 feet. At first glance, this compares well to the South Kingstown Comprehensive Plan's designation of a greenway to include 200 feet on either side of the Saugatucket and a portion of Indian Run. However, the Comprehensive Plan has not defined what activities will be allowed to occur within these buffers. Further definition of this greenway should consider habitat needs of the watershed's wildlife.

Modern History

The Narragansett Indian Tribe first inhabited the area and called the river Saugatucket, meaning “at the outlet of the tidal river.” During the summers, the tribe lived along the banks of the Saugatucket. Early European settlers farmed the surrounding landscape. Grist mills and small settlements developed where a significant change in elevation could be harnessed for water power. Ponds, reservoirs, and canals were built to power mills and provide drinking water. Workers at Peace Dale's woolen mill produced the serge for New York City's policemen's uniforms and Abraham Lincoln's paisley shawl. Near the mill on High Street in Wakefield, the color of the Saugatucket changed with the dye lot.

Where once the lower river was an industrial working river, today, water quality is improved, allowing fish and wildlife to return. Osprey and otter can be seen fishing in the mill ponds. Significant areas of open space line the river's banks. Historic buildings clustered along its shores preserve the past and welcome the future. Stores in the Wakefield Main Street District are beautifying the backs of their stores on the river. Construction is beginning on a pedestrian walkway looping the mill pond.

Canoes are appearing on the river and anglers are plying the water.  A bike path being built on the old Narragansett Pier Rail Line crosses the river and Main Street.   Main Street and River festivals include riverbank cleanups and garden-planting events and 'Saugatucket River Lights,' cauldrons of fire in the mill pond created by the 1810 dam.

Water Quality

 Land use in the Saugatucket watershed is predominantly residential, with some commercial/retail and industry. Historically, some of the waters of the Saugatucket were dammed or redirected to provide drinking water or power for the area's mills. These industrial areas have since been redeveloped, improving water quality and attracting the return of wildlife, fish and recreation. Water Quality Several areas in the Saugatucket watershed have compromised water quality. Upper Point Judith Pond is closed to shellfishing, due to high fecal coliform bacteria levels. The Saugatucket River, which flows into Point Judith Pond, was found to contain a major source of bacteria contamination near the Peace Dale Mill complex, but no discrete source was ever identified.

There are dissolved oxygen problems in Saugatucket and Wakefield Ponds. Ammonia and nitrate loadings in Saugatucket Pond can probably be attributed to the Rose Hill Landfill, and Wakefield Pond receives remnants of the ammonia decay from the upstream Saugatucket River and Mitchell Brook. The Rose Hill Regional Landfill immediately impacts both the Saugatucket River and Mitchell Brook. Leachate outbreaks from the landfill have been observed along the river sediment has been found to contain chlorinated VOC's (volatile organic compounds), iron, lead barium, manganese, and pesticides. Mitchell Brook was also found to contain VOC's, and pesticides in its sediments. Water quality impacts to Point Judith Pond can also be attributed to storm drains, industrial discharge, seasonal moorings, marinas, commercial/industrial docks, and possibly septic systems and waterfowl.



The Saugatucket River, Indian Run Brook, Rocky Brook, and Mitchell Brook are listed as Group 1 (highest priority) waterbodies on the State of Rhode Island.s 303(d) list of water quality impaired waterbodies.

 The Saugatucket River TMDL has been developed for fecal coliform, which has been found to exceed the state’s water quality standards. Both dry and wet weather water quality data have been collected in the Saugatucket River watershed, revealing elevated fecal coliform concentrations at both instream and tributary stations. Based on this data, Saugatucket River, Indian Run Brook, Rocky Brook, and Mitchell Brook were placed on the state’s 303(d) List of Impaired Waterbodies.

 RIDEM has identified the major sources of fecal coliform bacteria in the Saugatucket River watershed. These include stormwater runoff from highways and residential/commercial areas, a cow farm, pigeons roosting under the Palisades Industries Complex and the Main Street bridge, resident waterfowl, domestic pets, and wildlife. All sources are summarized below in Table 1.

The largest dry weather sources of bacteria are the cow farm, pigeons roosting under the Palisades and Main Street Bridge, resident waterfowl, and other wildlife. Cumulatively, the largest wet weather source of bacteria to the watershed is stormwater runoff.

Stormwater Runoff

A DEM study of the Saugatucket River watershed has identified stormwater as contributing to elevated bacteria levels observed in the Saugatucket River and its tributary streams including Indian Run Brook, Mitchell Brook, and Rocky Brook. The School Street stormwater outfall to Indian Run Brook, which receives runoff from approximately 80 acres in the vicinity of Dale Carlia Corner, has been specifically identified as contributing to these water quality impairments.

The Town has undertaken a project, funded by a DEM federal water quality grant, to develop a pollutant source reduction strategy that includes capturing and infiltrating runoff from impervious areas in the Dale Carlia Corner area. An analysis of each property within the study area has been completed for purposes of siting stormwater best management practices ( BMPs) to help achieve this goal. The BMP types and locations have been selected to both maximize treatment and minimize implementation costs. The Town's draft report includes the conceptual design of specific landscaping and structural improvements for each parcel in the study area.


In 2005, the SRHCC initiated a water quality monitoring education and monitoring program. They developed and conducted environmental education programs focusing on water quality to the schools within walking distance of the river in South Kingstown. Two field trips were conducted during 2004-2005 school year with a 5 th grade class and 26 five field trips were conducted in 2005-2006 school year to date with 2 nd, 3 rd, 4 th, and 5 th grades involved. After the first class, the 5 th graders took on the role of teacher and explained water quality monitoring procedures to the younger students. The students also took part in world water quality monitoring day and entered data to the international web site: The program will be continuing for remainder of the school year. Approximately 150 children and 15 adults have participated so far.

Organizations and Links

Saugatucket River Heritage Corridor Coalition

The Saugatucket River Heritage Corridor Coalition (SRHCC) is a volunteer 501(c )(3) organization established in 1994. They were designated by the Rivers Council in 1999 as the watershed council for the Saugatucket River. The designation was renewed in 2004. The SRHCC advocates for the Saugatucket watershed and works in partnership with the Salt Ponds Coalition on Point Judith Pond. SRHCC has one part-time director, 110 members and a mailing list with 800 names. The organization started as a coalition of community, civic and neighborhood organizations but expanded in 2004 to accept individual and family memberships. SRHCC is supported by grants, local fund raisers and memberships. The SRHCC includes representatives from the towns in the watershed.

The SRHCC is working with the town to develop a new walkway and canoe launch along the river in downtown Wakefield; the first phase of the project was recently completed. State and federal partners are restoring migratory herring by building and upgrading fish ladders. The SRHCC hopes that restoration of the Saugatucket can have a positive economic impact on downtown areas, while helping to reconnect residents with the cultural and natural landscape of the watershed.

Robin Wildman
Saugatucket River Heritage Corridor Coalition
P.O. Box 209
Wakefield , RI 02880

Informational Links