WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Senate today voted 92-8 to approve a bipartisan public lands package that includes U.S. Senator 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, cosponsored by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, would establish Rhode Island’s first ever Wild and Scenic river system and provide access to federal funding to protect and maintain the rivers of this watershed for recreation, fisheries, and water quality preservation.
The bipartisan public lands package will permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired at the end of September, 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.
“Protecting these stretches of wild and scenic rivers is a win for Rhode Island and will better preserve the whole watershed. I am pleased we were able to get bipartisan backing to include the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Wild and Scenic River Act in this public lands package. This was a collaborative effort that will help ensure new sources of funding flow to Rhode Island for river restoration, environmental education, and other community-based conservation projects,” said Senator Reed, a senior member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior & Environment.
“Today’s vote is an important step in establishing Rhode Island’s first-ever Wild and Scenic Area,” said Senator Whitehouse. “I’m pleased that the Senate has recognized the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed with this special status to protect some of our state’s most pristine rivers and tributaries for generations to come.”
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 (WSRA) will open the door to additional federal preservation funding and support from the U.S. National Park Service. However, a Wild and Scenic designation would not 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, under WSRA protections, further preserving Southern New England’s natural beauty. Following more than three years of intense 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.
In 2012, Senator Reed introduced the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act to study these rivers for inclusion in the National Wild Scenic River System and successfully had that bill included in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Last May, Reed, Whitehouse, Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI), and Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) joined with the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association and other local stakeholders to mark the completion of the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Stewardship Plan to preserve the rivers. The plan 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 bi-state study committee also included partners from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM), the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP), the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association (WPWA), Save the Bay, The Nature Conservancy, and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Technical assistance for the study was provided by the National Park Service (NPS).
Thirty-six environmental organizations in Rhode Island and Connecticut have sent letters highlighting their support of the legislation. And all twelve towns in the watershed area have passed formal resolutions of support.
To date, over 200 rivers in 40 states across the country have been accepted into the National Wild Scenic River System, but so far none in Rhode Island have received the designation.
U.S. Congressmen Jim Langevin (D-RI) and David Cicilline (D-RI) have introduced the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Wild and Scenic River Act in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Now that the bill has cleared the Senate, the bill must be passed by the U.S. House of Representatives before it can be sent to the President to be signed into law.<