Meet the New Wild & Scenic Streams in New England

Paddlers enjoy a river in New England
Alisa Phillips-Griggs courtesy of Farmington River Watershed Association

Following the recent signing of the Dingell Act, 225 miles of streams in New England have garnered environmental and recreational protection. Known officially as the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, the bill was signed into law on March 12, 2019. Among the bill’s many provisions, it increased public lands, it made permanent the Land & Water Conservation Fund, and it brought some 600 miles of waterways under the designation of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

In New England, these protections included the paddling resources of the Lower Farmington, Nashua, and Wood-Pawcatuck River systems – including the mainstem rivers themselves and many of their tributaries. For long time advocates of protecting these Northeastern U.S. waterways, such as the Farmington River Watershed Association, the bill was seen as a major win for the natural qualities of these streams.

“The new Wild and Scenic River designations in the Northeast bring so many important benefits to the region – economic, recreational, and environmental,” says William Dornbos, Executive Director of the Farmington River Watershed Association. “In our view, it is one of the most underappreciated, yet powerful, natural resource conservation approaches in the United States.

“What we’ve learned here in Connecticut, since the first segment of the Farmington River received Wild and Scenic status in 1994, is that this unique federal designation not only protects the free-flowing nature of the river, it also helps the river and its communities thrive. The Farmington River is a premier recreational river with diverse opportunities.”

A kayak glides through a reflective river.
Alisa Phillips-Griggs courtesy of Farmington River Watershed Association

There are 35 miles of newly designated Wild and Scenic River on the Lower Farmington in Connecticut. This mileage includes flatwater floats, moving water, and the Class III Tariffville Gorge, which is also home to the Jamie McEwan Whitewater Triple Crown. This annual paddling competition combines the disciplines of slalom, wildwater, and freestyle in the Tariffville Gorge, now in memory of McEwan, an Olympic medalist (and Canoe & Kayak contributor) who started the event in 2009.

Each of the three watersheds now protected have supported varying degrees of industrial use, and paddlers will see the remnants of historic dams plus the infrastructure of current ones. Going forward, the rivers will be administered under what is referred to as a partnership program with federal agencies. This means a local advisory council made up of non-government and community organizations, such as the Farmington River Watershed Association and local officials, will work with liaisons from the National Park Service to manage the land and water of the protected area.

“Wild and Scenic status both protects the river – from new dams or diversions – and also brings new resources and attention to the care and restoration of the river,” Dornbos adds, regarding the new management of these New England river corridors. “This is the Partnership Wild and Scenic River model that is common in the Northeast. It creates an advisory body primarily made up of river communities and gives them the tools, funding, and support they need to develop and implement a management plan for the river. So Wild and Scenic River status actually puts river communities first, it empowers them to do good river stewardship — something that’s not widely understood.”

While there is much to explore in the 225 miles of streams newly protected in New England, here is some more information on the main corridors to get started:

Farmington River: 35 miles of the Lower Farmington River in Connecticut have been added to the Wild and Scenic register, and this is in addition to segments of the West Branch of the Farmington and beginnings of the Farmington main stem which received designation in 1994. The Farmington features multiple paddling reaches ranging in type from flatwater to moving water, and the more advanced whitewater of the Tariffville Gorge.

Nashua River: Once deemed one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the country some 50 years ago, residents of the Nashua are now rejoicing in the river’s healthy comeback. Twenty-seven miles of the Nashua River, flowing through Massachusetts and New Hampshire, are now protected following the signing of the Dingell Act. The reaches of the Nashua are moving water with minimal rapids.

Wood and Pawcatuck Rivers: The Wood-Pawcatuck river drainage holds some of Rhode Island’s most underdeveloped habitat as it traces its way through the small state and along the Connecticut border. Thirty-six miles of the Pawcatuck River and 24 miles of the Wood River are now under Wild and Scenic River designation. The sections of these rivers range from moving water with sporadic rapids, up to Class II.


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Why the Dingell Act Matters

More C&K stories on Wild & Scenic rivers

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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