- By: Ted Williams
- Photography by: Donna Williams
Photograph courtesy Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor
conservation /// ted williams
Until 1972, when Congress enacted the Clean Water Act over President Nixon’s veto, Americans treated their rivers like Londoners treated their streets in the Middle Ages—emptying their excreta into them. The act authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to limit pollution by awarding discharge permits. Large federal grants helped municipalities upgrade from primary sewage treatment (removing solids) to secondary treatment (reducing biological content).
But the grants were intended merely to jumpstart a woefully overdue process. They came with the understanding that municipalities eventually would pick up their own tabs under the “polluter pays” concept, a central tenet of the act. That was only fair. Industry had been required to do so from day one.
The Clean Water Act has arguably been the greatest environmental success story ever written. Rivers, lakes and estuaries across the nation sprang back to life. I visited Lake Erie in 2007. Even before I was within visual range of what had been called “America’s Dead Sea” I encountered parts of its now-thriving ecosystem—gulls, herons, cormorants and ospreys, and purple martins chowing down on clouds of mayflies. In stores I observed some of the investment returns on pollution abatement such as sailboats, kayaks, motorboats, water-ski equipment, vast arrays of fishing tackle, and yellow-perch fillets from a commercial fishery now more productive than those of all the other Great Lakes combined. Cleveland’s once-flammable Cuyahoga River, which had provided Randy Newman with lyrics for his memorable song “Burn on Big River,” sustained a major steelhead run.
But the cleanup of Lake Erie and other US waters draining developed watersheds is far from finished. Somewhere around 1995 progress ceased for these reasons: 1. The act has not effectively dealt with “non-point” pollution sources such as runoff from streets, animal feedlots and cropland, all increasing with our population; 2. Public enthusiasm for clean water took a nosedive when the federal gravy train ran out and municipalities had to spend their own money treating their own sewage; 3. The George W. Bush administration hatched polluter-written “guidance” that mocked the intent of Congress by allowing the unregulated pollution of non-navigable waters, despite the fact that they feed navigable waters (this is like designating the shallow ends of swimming pools for public urination); and 4. Even under environmentally friendly administrations the EPA has been grossly lax on enforcement.
There is no better case study of the success and stalling of US water-pollution control than the changing fortunes of the Blackstone River, the continent’s first polluted waterway, whose terminus is promoted as “the birthplace of the American industrial revolution.” Greater Worcester, Massachusetts drinks the river as it rises in rills north of the city, then fouls it as it exits to the south. The Blackstone drains a 500-square-mile watershed, flowing to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where its dramatically improved (though still gravely impaired) water is collected by the Seekonk River and, five miles farther on, Narragansett Bay.
Because the Blackstone falls 438 vertical feet in its 46-mile run, aerating over dams and rapids, it is one of the few rivers that gets cleaner as it nears the sea. In Worcester you wouldn’t want to dip your toe in it. As it nears Pawtucket it sustains hatchery trout and, according to local anglers, a few wild brookies that drop down from pristine feeder streams, several of which I fish.
It is this steep descent that got the Blackstone into early trouble. In 1793 Samuel Slater (aka “the father of the American industrial revolution”) extinguished the prolific runs of Atlantic salmon, eels, American shad, blueback herring and alewives by building an illegal dam in Pawtucket to power the nation’s first successful cotton-thread spinning mill. When outraged citizens demolished the dam, Slater rebuilt it with the tacit approval of town fathers and law-enforcement officials. Forty years later there was a dam on every river mile.
By this time the river had been converted to a sewage-disposal system. Buildings were constructed with windows facing away from the river so that human sensibilities wouldn’t be offended. In failed efforts to suppress stench and disease, watershed communities burned coal tar and covered the river’s upper reaches with cement and cobbles. In 1937 the Massachusetts State Planning Board encapsulated the nation’s environmental ethic with this official proclamation: “Waterways are the ‘highways’ by which limited amounts of waste matter must be taken care of . . . . The Blackstone River is essentially an industrial stream [whose] industrial importance comes before any recreational advantage.”
Shortly after I moved to the Blackstone Valley, in 1970, my insurance agent’s dog frolicked in the river’s flow and, as a result, dropped dead. Today my dog frolics in it and merely stinks. In 1970 about the only benthic organisms one encountered a few miles south of Worcester were sludge worms. Today the riverbed undulates with crayfish.
Now, instead of turning away from the river, people turn toward it. Advocacy groups abound, and they are an increasingly powerful political force individually and as the Blackstone River Coalition. Coalition members include Trout Unlimited, the Blackstone Headwaters Coalition, the Blackstone River Watershed Association, the Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone, Lake Singletary Watershed Association, Massachusetts Audubon Society, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Manchaug Pond Association, Save The Bay, Conservation Law Foundation and College of the Holy Cross.
The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council sponsors paddle-powered Chinese “dragon boat” races, and voyages on The Blackstone Valley Explorer, an excursion boat with a 49-passenger capacity that plies the river by reservation during weekdays and every hour during weekends. Canoe races are sponsored by both the Blackstone River Watershed Association and the Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone. Tourists spend the night and are served breakfast on The Samuel Slater, a functioning 40-foot replica of a British canal boat, similar to the ones that traversed the Blackstone’s canal system between 1828 and 1848. The Blackstone Valley Paddle Club, sponsored by the Rhode Island Canoe and Kayak Association, organizes kayak trips. The Greenway Challenge—a running/paddling/biking competition—draws participants from across the nation. Finally, there are “walkabouts” along the river and to historical sites within the valley hosted by rangers of the National Park Service.
The Park Service is involved because in 1986 Congress designated the valley as a National Heritage Corridor. There was only one other at the time; now there are 48. Under such designation the feds don’t own land, but through local partnerships they restore open space, historic buildings and other cultural and environmental resources. In 1998 President Clinton named the Blackstone one of 14 “American Heritage Rivers.”
When I first gazed on the upper river 43 years ago it sustained two species of fish (white suckers and European carp). Today the mainstem sustains 24, tributaries 37.
In 1993 the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife released 3,000 adult blueback herring above the four downstream dams, then documented the viability of riverine habitat by capturing healthy fry. In 2001 gillnet sampling by the division below the first downstream dam (at Main Street, Pawtucket) turned up striped bass along with gravid alewives, herring, shad and white perch. The following year a cooperative effort by the State of Rhode Island, federal agencies and NGOs restored the most important spawning area—the Lonsdale Marsh, in Lincoln, Rhode Island—by removing a defunct drive-in-movie theater and the fill beneath it.
By the time you read this the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will have begun constructing fish ladders at the Main Street and Slater dams. The Elizabeth Webbing Dam, the next one upstream and also in Pawtucket, will shortly be equipped with a fish ladder by the Army Corps of Engineers, or possibly breached. If the fourth dam, the Valley Falls Dam, in Central Falls, Rhode Island, gets a fish ladder (designed but unfunded at this writing), shad, herring and alewives will have access to the restored Lonsdale Marsh and seven miles of river.
The Main Street and Valley Falls dams generate a little electricity. But the Slater dam serves no purpose. It needs to be breached because fish ladders pass only some of the fish, pathogens and predators proliferating in warm impoundments above dams kill fry and adults, and dams kill fish in their downstream migration. Yet Samuel Slater’s illegal fish killer is being maintained because of its alleged “historical value.” Witch killing is also part of America’s history, yet we don’t perceive “value” in its ongoing practice.
On a fine July day in 1995, just as progress in the cleansing of US waters was grinding to a halt, I stood in Slater Mill, trying and failing to pay attention to dignitaries as they droned on about the alleged glories of the industrial revolution. “It all started here,” they kept saying. What started here was the most devastating human assault on fish and wildlife the planet has ever seen. I fantasized about adding two new displays—a dummy of Slater hanged in effigy, and a glass-coated photo of his illegal obstruction next to the rubble of the real one.
But just then one dignitary, who would later become a friend and ally, caught my attention. His name was Bruce Babbitt; he ran the US Department of the Interior, and he said this: “I come here in search of your success. The wonderful story is that this river—the first truly polluted river in America, the cradle of the American industrial revolution—now becomes the cradle of another opportunity, the cradle of revival and renewal: its fish and wildlife and our natural heritage. This is a story I want to bottle up and carry around the rest of the country and say, ‘Here’s how we do it. Here’s what our future is about.’ I want to take this story into the halls of Congress and see if I can’t say to its members, ‘Throw the money changers and lobbyists out of this temple of American democracy.’”
But Babbitt and his values were replaced by Gale Norton and the values of Sam Slater. Since then the money changers and lobbyists have prevailed, waging an all-out war on the Clean Water Act. Somehow it survives, though in weakened condition.
The mantra of Worcester (the river’s first and grossest polluter) and the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District (the entity that treats the city’s sewage) is: Let’s save money; the river’s clean enough.
In 1991 EPA issued the district a pollution permit that didn’t cover nutrients. A slightly stricter permit, due in 1997, wasn’t issued until 1999. Instead of living up to its legal and moral obligations, the district screamed poormouth and filed an administrative appeal. After three years of negotiating, compromising and stalling EPA issued a permit that provided a continued free pass on nitrogen (the nutrient that devastates salt water) and imposed an extremely modest cap on phosphorus (the nutrient that devastates fresh water). But the upgrade wasn’t due for completion until 2013.
Nostalgic for the days when the feds paid for sewage treatment, city manager Michael O’Brien declared in April 2007 that the expense of a stricter permit mandated by the Clean Water Act “cannot be passed on to the Worcester taxpayer.” But it can, and it should. Why should people in, say, Mullinville, Kansas pay to clean up the mess made by Worcester residents, who annually pay $152 less for sewer services than the state average?
“It’s totally illogical to impose more stringent limits when we are only halfway through the [first] upgrade,” proclaimed Worcester’s public works commissioner and Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District chair Robert Moylan, neglecting to point out that the reason they were only halfway through the first upgrade was because they’d fought it for so long.
So again the district filed an administrative appeal. When that effort again failed, it sued. The required pollution control is too expensive and will have “negligible results,” complained O’Brien. “We stand firm that the EPA’s science and projected Blackstone River models are hopelessly flawed. We have proven this with our unbiased science.”
The “unbiased science”—which included a preposterously inflated cost estimate of $200 million (at least double the real cost, according to EPA)—was provided by a consultant’s “study” ordered up, paid for and controlled by the district. In a September 5, 2012 Worcester Telegram op-ed Moylan argued that somewhat disgusting is good enough. “The Blackstone River will not return to its old, disgusting form if EPA’s new mandated limits are rejected,” he wrote. And the Telegram quotes him as calling Blackstone River Coalition organizations “Stepford-like sister groups” that are given to “extremist” thinking and that “manipulate the media, win over the public and influence political leaders.”
On August 3, 2012 a partial panel of three First Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled against the district, finding that its “responsibility for serious pollution problems in the important waterways of two states is clear, and its challenge to the 2008 permit has no merit. As the district has recognized, cost considerations may not be considered by the EPA in the setting of permit limits to assure compliance with state water quality standards.”
The court also noted the illegality of an upstream community profiting by destroying resources and violating property rights of downstream communities: “The Blackstone, Seekonk, and Providence Rivers, and Narragansett Bay, all suffer from severe cultural eutrophication . . . . Narragansett Bay and the Seekonk and Providence Rivers, in turn, are each affected by the Blackstone’s degraded waters. Narragansett Bay, the ultimate depository for all the nutrients carried by the Blackstone, suffers from severe nitrogen-driven cultural eutrophication . . . . Among the numerous events documented in the record, severely hypoxic (waters characterized by levels of dissolved oxygen below what is needed by aquatic organisms to breathe) to nearly anoxic (waters completely depleted of dissolved oxygen) conditions, along with associated fish kills.”
Salt marshes around the 25-mile-long, 10-mile-wide bay are dying. And because the tide takes almost two weeks to flush the bay, nitrogen chokes off life in the brackish section that otherwise would be the most productive. Eel grass is dying. In a vain effort to escape the deoxygenated zone, flounders leap onto the dry, moribund marsh.
One might suppose that the court decision would have finally motivated the district and city to shut up and clean up, but no. The district appealed again, this time to the court’s full panel, and on October 10 that appeal was also denied. Moylan has vowed to take the case to the US Supreme Court, which, after having a good laugh, will of course refuse to hear it. If the district had invested half the rate-payer money it has squandered in these meritless and hopeless legal actions, it would have more than paid for the modest upgrades in sewage treatment mandated by federal law. Meanwhile, Moylan—following the lead of the “money changers and lobbyists” —is advocating “amending” (i.e., emasculating) the Clean Water Act.
In his Worcester Telegram op-ed Moylan urged readers to: “Walk down the bike path in Millbury that parallels the river just below the district’s discharge. See for yourself the crystal-clear water from the plant effluent channel. Take that trip and then ask yourself, just what is it that needs to be fixed?”
I took him up on his offer on September 13, 2012. Guiding me on the bikeway was Donna Williams, the most knowledgeable authority on the Blackstone, as well as its hardest-working advocate. In 1994 Bruce Babbitt appointed her to the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission, a body she now chairs.
She is also president of the Blackstone Headwaters Coalition and past president and current vice president of the umbrella group, the Blackstone River Coalition.
Moylan had been almost right about the clarity of the plant effluent channel. We found the flow less opaque than usual, mostly because there’d been so little rain. But clearer doesn’t mean healthier. “You can’t see phosphorus and nitrogen,” said Williams. “But you can see all the macrophytes they’ve fertilized.”
Macrophytes, she reminded me, are rooted aquatic plants. The bottom of the effluent channel was an undulating carpet of green. But on the bottom of the river, entering to the right, there was only bare gravel. Macrophytes choked not just the effluent channel but the main river for miles downstream. On some summer days 90 percent of the upper Blackstone’s flow issues from greater Worcester’s sewage treatment plant.
All along the bikeway the river reeked of ammonia, and gray suds bloomed where it tumbled over rocks. But we saw signs of hope, too. Where the Blackstone passed under busy Route 146 a cormorant dried its wings on a snag, and a great blue heron hunched on a stone. A blast of clean water from the Pakachoag diversion, a flood-control structure diverting water from Kettle Brook, joins the river in a large pool under a bikeway bridge. In the pool, part of an ecosystem was poised for recovery—three bluegills, seven painted turtles swimming and basking, two common mergansers, a Canada goose and 17 mallards. The symbolism was palpable—Worcester drinks Kettle Brook and excretes the Blackstone River.
The bikeway itself was a sign of hope, part of a deal brokered by Williams and her allies 20 years ago when the Route 146/Massachusetts Turnpike interchange was being designed. In the original plan, highway runoff was to flow directly into the river; but the river advocates prevailed on the state to install pipes that filter runoff through dirt and vegetation.
Bikeway users are shielded from Route 146 traffic by thick stands of planted trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Monarch butterflies, meadow fritillaries, cabbage whites, red admirals and skippers fluttered over and perched on blooming fall aster, white wood aster, touch-me-nots, goldenrod, sumac, Jerusalem artichoke, Queen Anne’s lace, clover and eupatorium. A formation of cedar waxwings twisted through red maples. Smiling bikers hailed us as they approached, and hikers paused to introduce their dogs to Westy, my Brittany.
Residents of the Blackstone River watershed are lucky to have Donna Williams, none more so than I, having persuaded her to marry me in 1970, the year I moved to her valley. While I was complaining about and retreating from her river, she was leading the fight to make it “swimmable, fishable by 2015”—a deadline that won’t be met, but one, she assures all hands, will only be delayed.
“It would be nice if we had the Yellowstone River in our backyard,” she told me. “But this is what we have, and we need to do our best to clean it up.”
Ted Williams has covered the environment for Fly Rod & Reel for almost three decades.
Clean Water on Hold
The 40-year-old Clean Water Act produced spectacular results—until about 1995.
Slater Mill, the nation’s first successful water-powered cotton-thread spinning mill.
About the only organisms one encountered were sludge worms.
In summer 90% of the upper river’s flow can be sewage effluent.
Photograph by by Donna Williams