A Cleaning for the Ages: Addressing Pollution in the Moshassuck River

The Moshassuck River near North Burial Ground   Photo: Tony Sager

The people who lived along the Moshassuck River, before the English removed them, lived in an environment of tremendous richness that sustained their communities and cultures.  We honor the people and cultures who preceded us in this place, and rue the damage that the Europeans did to the communities and ecosystems of this place and to all of what these indigenous people called Turtle Island. And now, after two hundred years of accumulated abuses, the health of the Moshassuck is finally being addressed.

The name Moshassuck means “where the moose drink” in reference to the wide flood plains that were pockmarked with the small wetlands filled with the vegetation moose love to eat.  Moose would find not Rhode Island particularly hospitable today, due to the draining of the wetlands and the rising temperatures of the current pollution-induced climate catastrophe that allow moose parasites to thrive, but during the Little Ice Age (1300AD to 1850AD) this was moose country.

The Moshassuck River has been dammed and polluted at least since 1675 and probably even earlier, making pollution history among the longest in what is now the USA. It is a small river, less than ten miles long, running from the Limerock section of Lincoln to the tidewater in Providence where it joins with the Woonasquatucket River to form the Great Salt or as it is currently known, the Providence River. In addition to being short, it is narrow and has a watershed of only twenty three square miles.  Small as it is, along the banks of the lower Moshassuck is where Roger Williams founded the first settler colony in Rhode Island, near a spring below what is now College Hill.  From its very beginnings in that colony, the Moshassuck was used as a sewer, with human excrement pouring in from houses along the river and nearby.

The estuary where the Moshassuck River reaches the sea in what is now downtown Providence was once an incredibly rich ecosystem with abundant fish, shellfish, and birds.   But as Providence grew up around it, every sort of pollution poured into the Moshassuck.  At its heyday in the industrial revolution, around the turn of the twentieth century, more than a hundred mills lined its banks pouring out dyes from textile mills, as well as chemicals and heavy metals from industrial plants making machinery.  At least seven dams were built along the river, the tallest at Barney Pond in Lincoln, at the edge of what is now Lincoln Woods State Park.

Turning the lower five miles of the Mosassuck into a canal, from southern Lincoln to the tidewater, in 1829, only added to the damage to the river.  The Blackstone canal, running from Worcester to Providence until the railroads put it out of business in 1846, cut through the lower Moshassuck instead of along the Blackstone River to Pawtucket.  This route was chosen because the lower Blackstone has so many larger waterfalls it was impossible to put a canal through with the construction technology of the time, and because there was not enough water in the system to manage the locks needed to raise and lower the barges that the steep falls would have required.

With the coming of the railroad, the closing of the canal meant that there was more water available to run the mills, and starting in 1847, as new mills were built, new mill housing sprang up along the Moshassuck.  The industrial pollution and the volume of household sewage in the river increased dramatically, and what little life left in the lower river almost disappeared.  By the 1920’s, some of the communities had built sewage treatment plants, and the mills started closing, but the water quality was still so bad that almost no one got close to the lower river, and almost all the construction was designed to face away from the river in an attempt to wall it off.  In fact, the lower Moshassuck was the site of several cholera outbreaks in the nineteenth century, until the building of the Fields Point sewage treatment pushed the pollution further down the Bay.

The Clean Water Act of the early 1970’s was finally the first glimmer of hope for the lower Moshassuck since the 1600s, but even the passage of legislation did not change much at first. Eventually the industrial pollution was much reduced, and the towns now have better sewage treatment plants, but here again history has a grip: the old sewer systems still combine rainwater and sewage, and when there’s heavy rain, some raw sewage still flows into the river.

Part of the Moshassuck River sewage treatment in Pawtucket Photo: Tony Sager

The dawn of the twenty-first century brought significant change when the EPA mandated that Rhode Island address combined overflow sewage.  A billion dollar Combined Sewage Overflow project was begun so that the rainy day sewage can be captured and treated at the sewage treatment plants instead of running into the rivers.  Phase One and Phase Two are now completed.  But alas, it is going to take Phase Three to capture the raw sewage that continues to flow into the Moshassuck River, and while that phase has started, it will be at least two more years before completion.

Combined Sewage Overflow 40 foot diameter tunnel       photo courtesy of Narragansett Bay Commission

Phase Three includes building a 3 mile tunnel from the Moshassuck River right on the border between Pawtucket and Providence all the way under Pawtucket to the Bucklin Point Sewage Treatment Plant in East Providence.  When this work is finally done, more than 90% of the rainwater and sewage that flows into the upper Moshassuck will be captured and treated.  The lower Moshassuck should become much cleaner.  The river will not be swimmable or fishable, as the Clean Water Act specifies, but it will be much less dangerous to the community and much more amenable to the creatures that rely on the river.  We can only hope that in 2025, when the project is complete, the restoration of the Moshassuck can begin and the lower-income communities along the lower river will start to see the benefits that have already come to other areas that the Narragansett Bay Commission sewage system covers.

The author and the Moshassuck River    photo: Tony Sager

Greg Gerritt is an activist, writer, and forest gnome.  He writes mostly about how ecological healing and economic justice are the keys to neighborhood prosperity.  His writing can be found on his blog ProsperityForRI.com.