Skip to news - Skip to navigation





Watershed Councils

Contact Us

Sign up for RIRC eNews

Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed



The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed stretches across the southwestern border of Rhode Island into the southeastern part of Connecticut. It includes all or portions of ten Rhode Island towns and four Connecticut towns. In Rhode Island, those towns are Charlestown, Coventry, East Greenwich, Exeter, Hopkinton, North Kingstown, Richmond, South Kingstown, Westerly and West Greenwich. Towns included in the watershed in Connecticut are North Stonington, Sterling, Stonington and Voluntown. The entire watershed covers an area of nearly 197,000 acres (300 square miles), or roughly one-quarter the size of Rhode Island. About 70% of Rhode Island's globally rare species are found within the watershed. Land use in the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed includes residential, agricultural, commercial, and retail.   Overall, 65% of the land in this watershed remains undeveloped.

Modern History

The first known users of the Pawcatuck River were the Native American Indian tribes of Niantic, Pequot, and Narragansett, who hunted and fished throughout the extensive watershed. Although resident Indian tribes relied heavily on the natural resources of the watershed, their uses did not significantly alter the landscape characteristics of the watershed. European colonists soon exploited the protected waters of the estuary; and by 1680, shipbuilding was the most active occupation along the banks of the river, converting forest and marsh to commercial and residential uses. Shipbuilding proliferated into the 1800s when the Industrial Revolution shifted the attention of regional investors to industrial manufacturing. The river’s naturally flowing waters provided a source of power for factories, and industrial development of the watershed began.

The first mills, powered by water, ground grains for flour and meal with little harmful effect on the watershed. With the adoption of textile processing in nearby Providence, these gristmills were converted to wool and cotton processing, which produced wastewater that was discharged directly into the river. The largest textile processing factory, the White Rock Company, was founded in 1814 along the Pawcatuck River in the White Rock region of Westerly.

As textile mills flourished throughout the watershed, a series of dams were constructed along the Wood and Pawcatuck to harness waterpower for factories. With the growth of industry, river damming continued into the mid-1900s. Unfortunately, this practice ultimately led to the extinction of diadromous fish species in the river by denying access to adult fish in need ofreturning upriver to spawn. As more factories appeared along the river and estuary, the growing demand for a work force drew more people into the region. As both the number of mills and people within the watershed increased, so did the extent and volume of industrial and municipal wastes discharged into the river, resulting in poor water quality. Increased pollution of the river continued into the 1950s, when the textile industry in New England abruptly collapsed and many of the region’s factories closed. Many of the abandoned factories fell to ruin, but others were converted to new industrial uses.

Improvement of water quality conditions in the river and estuary began when the textile industry collapsed, reducing the volume of wastewater entering the river, and continued with the construction of sewage treatment facilities in Westerly and Pawcatuck. However, planned control and abatement of pollutant discharges did not begin in earnest until passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. With adoption of this act, standards for wastewater discharge from industrial and municipal plants were instituted and water quality improved.

Water Quality


WPWA conducted a stream temperature study at 25 sites, benthic macroinvertebrate sampling at eight sites, began a study of Purple loosestrife using biological control: Set up study site on the Pawcatuck River, release beetles, and monitor (this will be a 3-4 year study), did a fish assemblage study on 3 sites to supplement DEM data, conducted an anadromous Brook Trout study on the Red Brook, MA: includes using innovative microloggers to record brook trout movement between estuary and riverine environments. WPWA conducts extensive water quality monitoring in the watershed in partnership with URI Watershed Watch.

In 2002, the Wood- Pawcatuck Watershed Association (WPWA) launched a transient monitoring program using data loggers to record short-term changes in water quality. The sites selected were based on likelihood of environmental impact due to nearby land use practices.

Another program was to quantify habitat variables for native brook trout in order to predict changes to their populations.   WPWA's Stream monitoring sites in the watershed include the Green Falls River in North Stonington, CT, the Beaver River and Meadow Brook in Richmond, RI, Queens River, Sherman Brook, Locke Brook, and Fisherville Brook in Exeter, RI; and Brushy Brook, Moscow Brook, and Loghouse Brook in Hopkinton, RI. The final report was issued in May 2004.

Stream Monitoring

Stream gauges are installed at select sites along streams in the watershed. Volunteers record the height of the water, temperature, and dissolved oxygen every week from May to October. Once a month samples for bacteria, pH, and nutrients are collected for laboratory analysis. Interns working for the Association measure stream flow at each of the sites three to four times a year. Volunteers for Trout Unlimited monitor the Falls and Flat Rivers in the Arcadia Management Area.

A pilot study of macroinvertebrates in lower order streams of the Pawcatuck was conducted during the summer of 2002.

Watershed Watch Volunteers monitor 12 sites on ponds, lakes, and impounded rivers in the watershed. They collect data on water quality conditions such as water clarity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, concentration of chlorophyll, pH, nutrients, and bacteria. Results are published in the URI's Watershed Watch Results.



The following is a list of impaired water bodies, which includes the pollutant or stressor causing the impairment.

As a Group 2 water body, the Chipuxet River from Yawgoo Pond to the entrance of Hundred Acre Pond is ranked as Medium Priority with a target date for TMDL between 2008 and 2012.  Hundred Acre Pond is a Group 2 water body and ranked as Medium Priority. The target TMDL date for Hundred Acre Pond is between 2008 and 2012.

Organizations & Links

Wood- Pawcatuck Watershed Association

The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association was formed in 1983 with a mission to promote and protect the lands and waters of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed.   WPWA is working with state and local governments, and non-governmental organizations, to promote careful stewardship of the watershed in the face of growing pressure to develop large parcels of land for commercial and residential uses.

WPWA is governed by a Board of Trustees, and employs a full time executive director, full time science and program director, and two part-time staff.   WPWA was recognized as the watershed council for the Wood-Pawcatuck in 1999, and this recognition was renewed in 2004.   The WPWA is supported by member dues and contributions, foundation grants, and federal, state and local government contributions.

WPWA encourages water resource stewardship with a goal of creating awareness for all watershed stakeholders including citizens, students, and government officials.  WPWA took the lead in the development of the Pawcatuck Watershed Action Plan, and continues to update goals and objective of the plan.  Some of its key issues and goals are the following:

203b Arcadia Rd.
Hope Valley, RI 02832
(401) 539-9017

Informational Links