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The Pawcatuck – a free-flowing river again
By Jenny Pereira / November 2, 2017 /   Loading Disqus...

Until it was demolished this past summer, Bradford Dam – just off Route 216 in Bradford village, where Westerly and Hopkinton meet – was a 6-foot-high, 200-foot-wide rock and wood structure built in the mid-1800s to support the Bradford Dyeing Association mill on the banks of the Pawcatuck River. The Pawcatuck is part of the largest watershed in Rhode Island, winding 34 miles southwest from its source at Worden Pond, in South Kingstown, to its terminus in Little Narragansett Bay, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

"We can’t wait to see the dam gone and the river flowing freely again. It will make a tremendous difference in terms of the quality of the habitat."

— Scott Comings, Associate Director, Nature Conservancy RI

The mill has been idle for decades, and the dam had fallen into disrepair, losing chunks of rock downstream, making it at risk of failing and causing a major flood. Most importantly, the dam restricted the movement of migrating American shad, alewife, blueback herring, American eel, and sea-run trout, many of which have historic breeding grounds that lie further upstream.

The dam removal process started in June with cutting a bypass channel to temporarily divert the river around the dam. Only then was the dam demolished. Simply removing the dam would have caused a five-foot drop in the water level upriver, draining hundreds of acres of wetlands habitat.



Instead, the dam is being replaced with a series of pools that gradually lower the water level. On the day we visited, a crew was strategically positioning hundreds of huge rocks on the riverbed, creating eight rows of boulders – called weirs – that will act as "steps" for the fish to swim up. When the river returns to its natural course, it will flow through the boulders that form these stepped pools. In addition, the design includes a 10-foot-wide channel for canoes and kayaks to pass through, eliminating an awkward portage.

“By connecting and opening waterways like the Pawcatuck River, we’re helping wildlife thrive and creating more resilient communities for people.”

                  — Wendi Weber, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Regional Director 

The $1.8-million project, overseen by The Nature Conservancy and supported by $821,000 in federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects, received additional public funds from the R.I. Department of Environmental Management and the R.I. Coastal and Estuary Habitat Restoration Fund.

The balance of the need for both the capital expenses and project oversight was met by The Champlin Foundation, the Bafflin Foundation, the Horace A. Kimball and S. Ella Kimball Foundation, the Rhode Island Foundation, and individual donors.

When the work is done, three of the six major dams on the Pawcatuck will be gone. Watch this time-lapse video of the first dam removed on the Pawcatuck – the White Rock DamJohn Torgan, Rhode Island state director for The Nature Conservancy perhaps says it best: "We’re changing how the Pawcatuck River and the Atlantic Ocean speak to each other." 

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