2014-11-20 / Front Page

Maidford Project Planned

By Jack Kelly

Road flooding during a recent light rain event on Third Beach Rd near Maidford River. Road flooding during a recent light rain event on Third Beach Rd near Maidford River. The picturesque Maidford River meanders approximately four miles south through Middletown, from its source in an unnamed pond near Wyatt Road to its terminus at Third Beach, where it empties into the Sakonnet River. The river can be a trickle during dry spells, or it can be a foaming, raging torrent during storm-induced heavy rains. Regardless of its changing flow, the river brings life to many wildlife habitats and farm fields during its travels to the sea. It supplies fresh water wetlands and brackish water saltmarshes, which in turn support countless species of native plants, insects, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management classifies the Maidford River as a Class AA fresh water stream, and a tributary to Nelson Pond and Gardiner Pond, reservoirs for Newport’s public drinking water system. It is also designated by RIDEM as a “critical habitat for rare and endangered species.”

There has always been a problem with the Third Beach end of the river, where the last 100 yards cross the sandy beach. Strong storm waves, especially during nor’easters, push large quantities of sand, seaweed, and other debris into the channel and aging culvert system, causing significant blockages. Roadway flooding is also a problem in the area and a strong rainfall may make the roads impassable for extended periods of time.

With the Maidford’s progress halted, water backs up into the surrounding marshes and, coupled with the storm’s rainfall, floods vital wetland habitats. The flooded regions suffer a loss of vegetation and animal life, while water quality deteriorates to the point of stagnation in some areas. The flooding also provides prime breeding conditions for mosquitoes, some of which are capable of carrying the West Nile virus and other diseases. As a temporary fix, the Town of Middletown was forced to use backhoes and other heavy digging equipment to clear the blocked channel on numerous occasions each year to relieve the flooding. The storm surge and waves from- Hurricane Sandy, in October of 2012, added greatly to the damaging effects.

In October of 2013, the Department of the Interior awarded $6 million to Rhode Island for “project specific” programs on sites directly impacted by Sandy. At that time, Charles Vandemoer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s manager for the five national wildlife refuges in Rhode Island, stated, “Four million dollars is slated for projects on the Maidford River in Middletown and the Narrow River in Narragansett. For the Maidford River, we are looking for a permanent solution to the blockages and flooding issues. We are looking forward to working with the town of Middletown and local conservation groups, including Save the Bay, the Norman Bird Sanctuary, and others. We will look at the impact that any changes have on the vegetation and animal life in the wetlands, its water quality, and complicating factors such as the height of the wetlands compared to the height of the river. We want to develop strategies for a permanent solution and manage the area accordingly. These solutions must leave the wetlands resilient over time and place this habitat in a high quality position.”

A collaborative partnership was developed between federal, state, town and conservation groups soon after this announcement. The partners began gathering scientific data on volumes and velocities of water, water level changes, and directions of flow for the Maidford River and associated marshes and wetlands. The group studied how additional salt water flow and sand placement will improve the marsh’s ability to grow native plants and grasses critical for foraging fish, nesting birds and other wildlife. One species in particular, the Saltmarsh Sparrow, was targeted because of rapidly declining numbers in recent years due to loss of nesting habitat. Another consideration for increased saltwater flow was the positive effect on potential mosquito breeding zones.

According to USFWS Project Coordinator Juancarlos Giese, “We are in the initial phases of this very intricate process. The marshes are critical buffers which protect surrounding communities from strong storm surges and the effects of sea level rise. At the same time, the wetlands provide crucial habitats for many species of wildlife as well as food, cover, vital nesting grounds, and a stopover for migrating birds. This project will address the damage issues by identifying how to prevent blockages of the Maidford River outlet, which floods the roads, marshes, and affects human health and safety.”

A preliminary list of restoration activities has been proposed and the agencies involved are now seeking public comment through Dec. 19.

. Clearing the buildup of sand at the mouth of the Maidford River to allow water to flow unimpeded into the Sakonnet River.

. Utilizing sand to provide a layer of sediment to restore the saltmarshes at the confluence of the Maidford and the Sakonnet rivers.

. Restoring and improving flow into the marshes by clearing and cleaning ditches and pools which have become clogged and are currently providing habitats for breeding mosquitoes.

. Controlling the invasive giant Phragmite reeds.

. Raising a portion of Third Beach Road and constructing a Tcrossing from the segmented road.

. Removing and replacing a deteriorating concrete culvert and a formed cement bridge with a modern box culvert or similar construction that will allow for road travel and vastly increased water flow.

“We are hoping that the public will share their past experiences, family stories, or other pertinent information with us, so that together we can move forward with this project and not only improve the quality of the wetlands, but the quality of life for the surrounding community,” Giese said.

Public comments should be directed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Attn: Maidford River Restoration Project, 50 Bend Road, Charlestown, RI, 02813. For further information contact Juancarlos Giese at 401-364-9124 ext. 18.

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