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Approved Kickemuit Watershed Action Plan
Bristol and Warren, RI; Rehoboth and Swansea, MA

Prepared by Lenny Bellet at Save the Bay and Justine Calcina at the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District


The Kickemuit River Council
The Towns of Rehoboth, Swansea, Warren, and Bristol
The Mt. Hope Narragansett Watershed Team
Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District (SRPEDD)
Swansea Board of Health
Brown University
Warren Land Trust
Rhode Island Watershed Approach Coordinating Council
Partners for Resource Protection
University of Rhode Island – Cooperative Extension


We all live in a watershed. When we talk about restoring water quality, we cannot concentrate only on a particular body of water – the Kickemuit River in this case. Rather, we must consider every stream and brook that drains to the Kickemuit, every type of land use through which these streams flow, even the water percolating through the ground toward these streams. All of this happens in a watershed.

Humans have changed the watershed landscape considerably over the last 400 years or so. And we continue to do so. What might the land surrounding the Kickemuit River have looked like 400 years ago? 100 years ago? 50 years ago? There is no doubt that our continued development of the Kickemuit River watershed will continue to impact the river for years to come. It is for this reason that watershed-based planning is crucial to the future of the Kickemuit River watershed. In this plan we will examine existing sources and potential future sources of pollution to the Kickemuit. We will recommend solutions that will significantly improve water quality throughout the watershed.

The Kickemuit River is one of the smaller tributaries to Narragansett Bay. Its watershed covers only 9 square miles in the towns of Rehoboth, and Swansea, MA, and Warren, and Bristol, RI. Originating in southeastern Rehoboth, the Kickemuit flows into the Warren reservoir in northern Swansea. From here, the river flows south under interstate 195 and then Rt. 6 toward the Mass. – RI border where it empties into the North and Kickemuit reservoirs. The Heath Brook tributary originates between I-195 and Rt 6 to the west of the mainstem Kickemuit. It flows south parallel to the Kickemuit and joins the mainstem just north of the Kickemuit reservoir. The dam at the southern end of the Kickemuit reservoir marks the boundary between the fresh and salt water Kickemuit. Through the remainder of the town of Warren and the northeastern portion of Bristol, the river is tidal.


The watershed consists of nearly 300 acres of wetlands comprising 5 % of its area. Numerous red maple swamps can be found throughout the upper watershed. Emergent brackish and salt marshes fringe the tidal portion of the river south of the Kickemuit reservoir. Wetland ecologist, Frank Golet points out specific wetlands that are particularly noteworthy. “The large, highly diverse freshwater wetland area located at the north end of the Warren reservoir is of statewide significance from the standpoint of wildlife habitat, while the 79 acre forested swamp east of Long Lane is one of the best examples of such habitat in the East Bay area.” Golet adds, “…special consideration should be given to wetland acquisition and the establishment of undisturbed upland buffer zones around wetlands in order to protect their multiple values.” (Golet, 1988).

Land Use

The majority of the watershed is still relatively undeveloped. Forest and open space cover 41 % of its area. But high-density residential lots cover significant portions especially in the towns of Warren and Bristol. The expansion of residential and commercial development has taken place principally at the expense of agriculture. Yet agriculture still comprises nearly 20% of land use in the watershed.

The majority of the watershed upstream of the Kickemuit remains largely open as forest with low density residential and some agricultural use interspersed throughout. One exception to this general land use pattern is the Smokerise Heights subdivision located in southern Swansea near the RI border. Occupying approximately 183 acres (3% of the watershed), this subdivision is comprised of very high-density residential housing. Below the Kickemuit reservoir, the watershed is largely residential along its western shore, while the eastern shore is evenly distributed between forest, residential, and agricultural land uses.

Water Quantity

Where does the water come from?

Citizens of Rehoboth and Swansea in the upper watershed rely on wells for their water. In Rehoboth these are predominantly onsite wells, while in Swansea, 95% of residents get their water from public wells. The majority of Warren and Bristol, RI are served by private wells though significant portions are served by the Bristol County Water Authority (BCWA). Though currently tied into the Scituate reservoir, the BCWA is permitted to withdraw 2.2 million gallons from the Palmer watershed into Kickemuit reservoir. Water from the Palmer watershed flows through an 18” pipe installed in 1912 which runs from Shad Factory Pond approximately 6 miles south to the Kickemuit Reservoir. No assessment of this pipe’s condition has been done to date, but it is safe to assume that portions of it have fallen to disrepair and may be “leaking” water out of the Palmer watershed or into the Kickemuit.

And where does the water go?

In the Massachusetts portion of the watershed, (Rehoboth and Swansea) all residential water is treated by onsite septic systems. Thus all water withdrawn from the watershed is returned to the watershed. 80 percent of the RI portion of the Kickemuit is on septic, and therefore returns its water to the watershed as well. Areas with septic systems that rely on the BCWA for drinking water receive a net gain of water (since water from an outside source enters and is retained in the watershed.)

Most homes with septic systems get their drinking water from private wells. On these sites there is neither a net loss nor gain of water since water withdrawn from on site wells is returned to on-site septic systems. The remaining 20 percent of the lower watershed returns its water outside of the watershed to the Warren Wastewater Treatment Facility which discharges into the Warren River. If homes in these areas get their water from the BCWA then they are neither contributing nor withdrawing water from the Kickemuit watershed. If any homes in these areas rely on private wells, then they bring about a net loss of water since they take water from the watershed but return it to a different watershed.

Water Quality

…Mass/RI 303(d) list…TMDL process and status for Kickemuit. … a Water Quality Restoration Plan for the Kickemuit….

Nutrients and pathogens arise from a number of sources in the Kickemuit watershed. Failing septic systems, poor agricultural practices, excessive fertilizer use, even domestic animal and waterfowl waste all contribute to the high levels of nutrients and pathogens detected in the Kickemuit River. From these sources, nutrients and pathogens are released into surface and ground water, but where there is an abundance of impervious or hard surface this process is accelerated. Rather than infiltrating into the ground where it travels slowly, storm water falling on or flowing over impervious surface moves quickly into the nearest stream through storm drains, or surface runoff. So the combination of intense, polluting land uses with increased impervious surface together can have severe impacts on the Kickemuit River. Impervious surface associated with dense residential and commercial development in the towns of Warren and Barrington may already be negatively impacting water quality. Fortunately, the majority of the Kickemuit River watershed remains forested and contains little impervious surface.

Goals and Objectives of the Kickemuit Watershed Action Plan

This plan is divided into four major areas. The focus of the plan and its first goal is the protection and restoration of the Kickemuit’s water quality. The reduction of nutrient pollution from non-point sources throughout the watershed is the biggest challenge. Erosion and subsequent sediment loading has a serious impact on water clarity and in extreme cases, can severely alter downstream habitat. This is another serious concern in Kickemuit.

Sustainability is the key to the success of any watershed action plan. The three remaining goals of this plan deal specifically with sustainability. On a municipal level, towns can work to reduce impacts of growth by adding or revising local ordinances to accomplish a variety of goals. For example, new ordinances can require reductions in road widths and parking lot sizes in order to lower impervious surface and subsequent runoff. In residential areas, towns can require conservation subdivisions in which homes sit on smaller lots which are clustered in areas away from wetlands, streams, or other fragile resources. By changing the way they grow, towns can ensure that water resource protection can be linked to residential and economic development into the future.

According to the Conservation Law Foundation, the population of southeastern Massachusetts is growing at a rate of 1.6 percent each year, yet developed land is growing at a rate of 4.1 percent. Over the last four decades, the region’s population has grown by over 110 percent. This area like many others across the Narragansett Bay watershed is experiencing sprawl. Without proper planning and open space protection, suburban sprawl will completely transform the rural character of the Kickemuit River watershed with severe impacts to its water quality and that of Narragansett Bay. With this in mind, open space protection is of utmost importance throughout the Kickemuit River watershed.

The most important stakeholders in this process are local citizens and local decision-makers. Everyone who lives in the watershed is connected to the river. This is especially true in a watershed like the Kickemuit where the vast majority of its residents get their drinking water from the aquifer underlying their own homes while relying on septic systems – also located on their property- for wastewater disposal. Their withdrawals and ‘contributions’ to the watershed impact its water quality and quantity. Many see the river each day on their way to or from work or around town. Many others enjoy recreational uses such as fishing or boating on the river. Maintaining and building this sense of connection and community stewardship for the Kickemuit is vital to the long-term sustainability of its watershed protection.