The Pawtuxet River: From a “Common, Natural Sewer” to Clean Water

The Pawtuxet River is Rhode Island’s largest river, supplying the state with much of its drinking water, offering recreational opportunities for residents and visitors, and fostering an environment for a diverse ecosystem. Although this river now boasts some of the cleanest fresh water in the state, this was not always the case.

The Pawtuxet River provided power to mills and factories in Scituate, Cranston, West Warwick and Warwick during the Industrial Revolution. During this era, the river was referred to as “a common, natural sewer of Pawtuxet Valley”, as extensive dumping of pollutants from the mills and municipal sewer systems occurred. Cadmium, mercury, pathogens, low dissolved oxygen, and nutrients affected the river’s water quality and comprised populations of fish that live in the ocean but rely on fresh water to reproduce/spawn.

Since the 1970’s, the Pawtuxet River has seen drastic improvements. The Clean Water Act, a federal law aiming to restore and maintain our water resources, was passed in 1972. That same year, the Pawtuxet River Authority and Watershed Council was created to support the improvement of “the Pawtuxet River and its extended system of ponds and streams for both preservation of the environment and quality of life in Rhode Island”.

In 2011, the Authority removed one of the dams at the mouth of the river, allowing multiple species of fish to return and populate the first seven miles of the river for the first time in more than 200 years. Additionally, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management issued new discharge permits to West Warwick, Warwick, and Cranston, three major municipal wastewater treatment plants that discharge treated water to the river. These permits outline strict limits on phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients and pollutants.

Today, the dammed North Branch, which created the Scituate Reservoir, provides the state with 65% of its drinking water. There are various accesses for public fishing and canoeing. The Pawtuxet Watershed now holds the state record for largemouth bass and catfish and hosts the state’s largest population of smallmouth bass. The work of water professionals and passage of environmental policy in the last 50 years has made the Pawtuxet River a safer, cleaner body of water for Rhode Island.

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