The Westport River Watershed encompasses parts of Westport, Dartmouth, Fall River, and Freetown in Massachusetts, and Tiverton and Little Compton in Rhode Island. Eighty-five percent of the watershed’s landmass drains into the two branches, East and West, of the Westport River. The river is comprised of two major drowned river estuaries that are connected to Buzzards Bay tidal waters by a single inlet. The Westport River is one of the Commonwealth’s greatest coastal assets in both habitat quality and scenic beauty. Nutrient loading and pathogen contamination are major water quality concerns, particularly in the upper reaches of the 35 mile shoreline.
There are approximately thirty commercial fishing boats in the local fishing industry. Among the natural resources of the River are shellfish beds of scallops, oysters, quahogs, mussels, and soft-shell clams. Of the nearly 3,000 acres of shellfish beds in the estuary, 650 acres are permanently closed due to pathogen contamination. Another 1,522 acres are conditionally or seasonally closed. Conditional areas are opened and closed on varying amounts of rainfall. Where 0.2 inches closes most conditional areas and 1.0 inch of rain closes a portion of conditional area in the East Branch. Both branches of the river are listed on the Commonwealth’s 303d list of impaired water bodies for pathogen contamination. In the summer months upper reaches of the river are consistently closed for public swimming due to pathogen contamination. There have also been several beach closures over the past few years due to failures of bathing beach safety standards. Pathogen contamination is due to Nonpoint Source pollution from agricultural runoff, poorly maintained and failing septic systems, and waterfowl congregations.
WRWA and the Town of Westport have invested significant time and money to understand the reasons for the long-term decline in water quality and healthy habitat of the Westport River. The conclusion from decades of water testing and many scientific studies is that the Town needs a watershed based plan to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the river.
We have learned that our homes, businesses and farms are the main sources of too much nitrogen. This has been confirmed by the Massachusetts Estuary Program (MEP) Report (2013), Bread and Cheese Brook Report (2014), and the Final Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Report (2017). The TMDL Report sets targets on the limits of nitrogen the river can receive to restore it to a healthy and productive estuary.
Reducing the long term effects of septic systems and cesspools to surface waters and aquifers calls for a watershed approach to planning. Simply put, the current wastewater management systems used in our homes, businesses, and traditional agricultural practices do little to reduce the excessive nitrogen and bacteria entering the river. In more densely populated neighborhoods with smaller lots, septic systems and wells are located so close together that drinking water quality can be compromised. We are awaiting a plan that looks beyond current approaches to manage wastewater, and instead identifies where new solutions can be most effectively applied to respond to a watershed-wide problem.
Building from the prior studies and reports, the plan will describe and evaluate a mix of traditional and alternative technologies and practices that can be applied to halt and reverse the current nitrogen and bacteria loading that has degraded the river. The plan will also examine alternatives for an additional water supply and wastewater infrastructure necessary to:
- Address public health concerns on properties with compromised drinking water sources and,
- Reduce current nitrogen loading and prevent additional loads that would arise from future residential and commercial development.
The plan will evaluate the most promising combination of methods for wastewater and stormwater treatment as well as other practices to reduce nitrogen generation and discharge. It will recommend which approaches will be most efficient and cost effective in achieving the reduction targets considering the type, volume and location of the sources of contamination. The components of the plan will include needs, alternatives, and financial analyses, a preliminary engineering design, and a public engagement process to obtain the community’s input and participation in the design and implementation of the plan.
WRWA has been working since 1976 to educate people in sound ecological ways of co-existing with nature and to educate watershed residents about what they can do to protect these natural resources. We advocate for environmental solutions with the local, state and federal regulators who make critical decisions about our environment. And finally, we assess water quality parameters that document the condition of the river and watershed.
Here are links to more information and publications about different watershed resources.