Group Photo

From left to right: Dennis Migneault, who serves as lead representative for the Wood Pawcatuck Wild & Scenic Stewardship Council, Friends of the Saugatucket President Bill McCusker and Narrow River Preservation Association President Richard Grant pose for a photo in front of the river. 

Watershed works to educate community, monitor water quality

WAKEFIELD – “The Rhode Island Rivers Council has this big map of all the watersheds, and there was this little hole, along with a few others, that didn’t have a watershed council – and that was the Saugatucket River,” said Bill McCusker, President of the newly formed Friends of the Saugatucket.

That hole has been filled, thanks to a handful of community members with a passion for protecting our local waterways. Together, these environmental stewards created the Friends of the Saugatucket – Rhode Island’s newest watershed group.

“In a short period of time, we’ve done an awful lot,” according to McCusker, who spearheaded this initiative alongside his wife, Elise Torello.

In February, a small but mighty group of community members came together to help preserve the waterway through routine testing and cleanup events, and have been educating the public on how they can help play their part.

A big piece of this, so far, has been talking with community members at events like Riverfire – which wouldn’t be possible without the Saugatucket River.

“We spend most of our time with our backs to the river, but the Riverfire makes it so we’re looking at the river – and we want people to look at the river,” McCusker said. “And respect the river. Realize that this is a valuable resource for the town.”

One of the biggest pieces of education concerns using lawn fertilizers responsibly, since excess amounts can easily run off into the waterways and be responsible for large algal blooms and high bacteria counts – even if the river isn’t right in your backyard.

In recent weeks, following heavy rain periods, the water quality testing that’s been done at various points along the river has shown high bacteria counts, according to McCusker. Currently, the watershed group does testing on the small dock right behind Main Street and on Saugatucket Pond twice a month, and testing by Saugatucket Road once a month, but with additional funding, McCusker hopes to collect more samples from other parts of the watershed, like small tributaries.

Recent high bacteria counts could be from road runoff naturally occurring, but more data could lead the Friends of the Saugatucket to possible solutions of how to fix it.

In addition to looking at water bacteria, testing samples are also able to provide insight into things like oxygen and pH levels, and provide a clearer picture of the health of the river.

Thankfully, according to McCusker, the Friends of the Saugatucket is fortunate to be working with lots of great people and great organizations. At times, working to improve water quality and protect waterways has been frustrating, he admits, but seeing the way people have been coming together this year gives them some hope.

“Sometimes we think we’re the only ones doing anything, but then we’ll go to a meeting and realize that we’re not,” he said. “There’s a lot of people chipping in.”

Many of the people that McCusker and Torello have dragged into the project include close friends and neighbors, but the group is always looking for more volunteers to help out the river in any way they can – like attending a cleanup that will yield far more trash than you might expect.

One of the great organizations that Friends of the Saugatucket has been working with is the River Herring Collective, which helps herring get up river to spawn when fish ladders prove to be ineffective. One of the three fish ladders along the Saugatucket – near the Peace Dale Library – has been preventing herring from moving upstream to Indian Lake.

McCusker, along with others, put on a pair of waders and jumped in alongside other volunteers to manually dump the fish over the dam in nets. Other volunteers stood by fishlaters and collected data for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, in order for them to create better estimates of how many fish passed through to spawn.

This year, based on the data collected, an estimated 10,000 herring swam up the Saugatucket River, according to McCusker.

There’s lots of work to be done to help protect the local watershed, but the Friends of the Saugatucket aren’t letting them discourage them. Instead, they’re pushing forward with their best efforts.

“Because the river was at its worst, we have to be at our best,” McCusker said.

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