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Monday, February 18, 2019

Reed and Whitehouse get GOP-controlled Senate to protect local scenic waterway

By ecoRI News staff
The 300-square-mile Wood-Pawcatuck watershed features the Barberville Dam raceway. (Wood-Pawcatuck Wild and Scenic Study Committee)
The 300-square-mile Wood-Pawcatuck watershed features the Barberville Dam raceway. (Wood-Pawcatuck Wild and Scenic Study Committee)

The U.S. Senate recently voted to approve a public lands package that includes Sen. Jack Reed’s language to designate river segments within the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. 

The legislation, co-sponsored by fellow Rhode Island Democrat, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, would establish the state’s first Wild and Scenic river system and provide access to federal funding to protect and maintain the rivers of this watershed for recreation, fisheries, and preservation.

The bipartisan public lands package will permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired at the end of September, to create about 1.3 million new acres of wilderness area, and adopt more than 100 public lands and water initiatives, including the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Wild and Scenic River Act.

A river’s classification as “wild” means there is little development in surrounding areas and “scenic” means it is still largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by roads.

Designating these segments of the 300-square-mile Wood-Pawcatuck watershed under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 will open the door to additional federal preservation funding and support from the U.S. National Park Service, according to Whitehouse. 

However, a wild and scenic designation wouldn’t give the federal government control of the property or prohibit future development.

The legislation includes parts of seven rivers: the Beaver, Chipuxet, Green Fall-Ashaway, Queen-Usquepaugh, Pawcatuck, Shunock, and Wood rivers in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Following more than three years of study, the bill formally recognizes the recreational, natural, and historical qualities of these river segments, provides access to federal resources, and promotes strong partnerships for their restoration and protection, according to Whitehouse.

The Wood-Pawcatuck watershed protection act was developed in consultation with town-appointed representatives from Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, North Kingstown, Richmond, South Kingstown, Westerly, and West Greenwich in Rhode Island and North Stonington, Sterling, Stonington, and Voluntown in Connecticut. 

The study committee also included state partners.

Thirty-six environmental organizations in Rhode Island and Connecticut have sent letters highlighting their support of the legislation. All twelve towns in the watershed area have passed formal resolutions of support.

To date, more than 200 rivers in 40 states have been accepted into the National Wild Scenic River System, but so far none in Rhode Island have received the designation.

Congressmen Jim Langevin, D-R.I., and David Cicilline, D-R.I., have introduced the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Wild and Scenic River Act in the U.S. House of Representatives.