Buckeye Brook -- Don't Mess With Me
A small brook suffering from too much civilization finds a friend.

Mary Grady

This story ran in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine in April 2005. It was my idea, and it was a real pleasure to finally get a chance to do an environmental story. Thanks to RIM for giving it a home!

Buckeye Brook starts at the south end of Warwick Pond, just off the end of Runway 34 at T.F. Green Airport. It wanders southward across the airport property, then heads east, crossing under Warwick Avenue and West Shore Road, to empty into Narragansett Bay near Conimicut Point, at Old Mill Cove. For most of its three-mile journey, the little brook is hidden beneath a canopy of scruffy red maples and stunted pine trees, hemmed in on both sides by fenced-off backyards, paved roads, pizza places, drugstores, and parking lots.

"To most people, Buckeye Brook looks like not much more than a little stormwater ditch through the woods," says John Torgan, Save The Bay's Narragansett BayKeeper. But the brook, despite years of abuse and neglect, serves a critical function in the life of the Bay watershed. It's a free-flowing, unobstructed, naturally occurring herring run -- a rare thing in a state where most rivers were dammed and diverted centuries ago.

In the spring of 2002, Torgan witnessed the herring run for the first time. "It was spectacular," he says. "It was very impressive. I'd never seen anything like it." At Old Mill Cove, where the brook meets the Bay, thousands of fish, each one a foot or more long, were swimming resolutely upstream, filling the brook from shore to shore. "You could walk across the water on their backs, they were that thick," Torgan says. They were the river herring, commonly called buckies, that give Buckeye Brook its name.

Instinct drives the fish, mainly alewives and blueback herring, upriver to Warwick Pond, and beyond to Spring Green Pond, on the north side of Airport Road. Once there, they lay their eggs and then return to sea. The hatchlings spend the summer growing in fresh water, then migrate downstream to the open ocean, where they stay until it's their turn to spawn, and instinct will drive them back to Buckeye Brook.

The fish run has been well-known to anglers for generations. On a spring day, they come to Buckeye Brook by the dozens to collect the herring. Each angler is allowed to take up to 12 fish a day, Wednesday through Saturday. The fish are used mainly as bait for lobster traps or saltwater sportfishing. They're like caviar for the coveted stripers. But the 20th century was hard on the little brook, and there's no guarantee that the fish will keep coming.


Torgan knew exactly when the herring were running because he'd received an excited call from Steve Insana, who has lived on the banks of the brook since 1966, when he was three years old. As he grew up, Insana explored the stream from end to end with makeshift rafts, kayaks, and canoes. He remembers seeing greenish scum in the water back in the '70s, when an old landfill, now closed, was operating on the riverbank. He remembers old shopping carts and discarded tires clogging the currents, and litter along its shores. But mainly he remembers the exhilaration of the springtime fish runs, when he couldn't wait to get home from school. "You could catch them with nets, you could scoop them up with your hands, there were so many," he says. The neighborhood kids would collect the herring and sell them to fishermen for bait.

He knew the brook wasn't as healthy as it should be, and as he grew older he started to worry about the survival of the fish. In 1998, Insana coordinated the brook's first annual Earth Day cleanup. He educated himself about the ecology of the stream and the watershed, and when public meetings were held in Warwick about plans to expand the airport, he went and spoke up on behalf of the brook. "We have a herring run here," he would say. "We have to protect that. We have to preserve it." At those meetings, he met other people who shared his concerns, and started to build a network of advocates for Buckeye Brook.

In August 2002, Insana called a meeting at the Warwick Public Library, posting flyers and placing an ad in the Warwick Beacon. About forty people showed up, and the Buckeye Brook Coalition was born. They were fishermen, local residents, people who knew Buckeye Brook. Now they wanted to join in the effort to protect and preserve it. Insana, who works as a landscaper and stonemason, spends his free time in the off-season working for the brook. He attended training sessions on how to build a watershed organization, and he put those lessons to work. "In just two years, Steve and the coalition went from a tiny grass-roots group to a full-fledged state Watershed Council that's grown into a political force in Warwick," says John Torgan. "It's a real success story."

"People ask me, how did you do it?" says Insana. "My answer is, you utilize your resources." Insana networked with Save The Bay, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Saltwater Anglers Association, his Warwick neighbors, everyone with an interest in the brook, and brought all that energy together. "Steve is brutally honest, and passionate," says Torgan. "He has a definite style that's uniquely local. And he has that direct connection to Buckeye Brook -- when it hurts, he hurts -- that gives him credibility. People feel they can relate to him and work with him."


While fishermen and ecologists value the little brook, for the most part it's easily overlooked in the busy life of the densely settled city. But in the past, it played a vital role in the local economy. Hundreds of years ago, the ancient Shawomet tribe camped along its banks, using the water for irrigation and transportation, and catching the buckies for food and fertilizer. Broken quahog shells discarded after Shawomet meals still rattle in the sandy soils. Insana has a half-dozen hand-hewn stone arrowheads he found along the shore.

In the 1600s, Colonial settlers built a gristmill at Old Mill Cove, where the crumbling remnants of a stone dam can still be seen. "The first mills in Rhode Island were built here," Insana says. "They developed the technology on a small scale, then moved up to the Pawtuxet and Blackstone and Woonasquatucket when they needed more power." Revolutionary War soldiers lie buried beneath shady white oaks whose roots tap into Buckeye Brook. They may be forgotten to history, but Insana remembers them. "There are more miles of history than the stream is long," he says. "This is where it all began."

With the industrial age came roads, and more and more houses, and more and more pavement. Oil and sediments from the roads ran off into the brook with every rainstorm. The airport and the landfill were built on its banks, and septic systems from densely packed subdivisions leached into its groundwater. But the fish kept coming. ***

Old Mill Cove is where the brook joins the Bay. It's a quiet, feral spot on the edge of a remote Warwick neighborhood near Conimicut Point. The brook widens here and grows saltier, and the sandy banks show the terracing of high and low tides. Insana has taken me here on a rainy winter morning as part of a Buckeye Brook grand tour. "Oh, you can smell it!" he grimaces as we reach the water's edge. An inescapable stench emanates from the water, a rank chemical scent, a little oniony and sharp.

He's smelled it before, from his own backyard, and in the backyards of his neighbors in Warwick. The odor results when glycol, the main ingredient in de-icing fluid used at the airport, gets into the water and begins to break down. The decaying chemicals deplete the oxygen and contribute to fish kills. Insana picks up a tiny white shell from a pile scattered near the shore. "Look at this. Dead baby clams. They're sensitive, they can't tolerate these conditions," he says. The dark shadow of a tiny clam corpse lurks within the translucent white clamshell, barely the size of a pea.


During cold, wet, or snowy weather, pilots must be careful that any ice on their aircraft is removed before takeoff. Ground crews spray a mixture of glycol, water, and chemical additives from a truck onto the wings and fuselage. The de-icing fluid then drips onto the pavement, and shears off as the airplane taxis and takes off. The airport has taken steps to contain the fluids, but as much as half of it still seeps into the watershed.

Add other runoff from the airport's many impervious surfaces -- fuel spills, and chemicals used in maintenance or to de-ice runways -- and the airport is the biggest source of pollution to Buckeye Brook, according to the Conservation Law Foundation. Christopher D'Ovidio, an environmental lawyer, is director of advocacy for CLF's Providence office. He joined forces with Insana and the Buckeye Brook Coalition to research the glycol issue and pressure the airport to change its practices.

They found that the airport's discharge permit from the state Department of Environmental Management had expired in 1992. In the years since, the airport had been operating under a provision that allows the old permit to remain in place until a new one is issued. "During all that time, the airport has been in the process of getting a new permit from DEM," says D'Ovidio. "It's a travesty." With the passing years, more discharge pipes had been installed, with more than a dozen outfalls dumping runoff into the brook and its wetlands and tributaries. The airport had been cited by DEM numerous times for pollution, but no enforcement action had been taken, CLF says.

In April 2003, CLF and Save The Bay filed a Notice of Intent to sue the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, alleging that it was discharging pollutants into waters of the United States without a permit, in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

RIAC began negotiations with the groups, and in December 2003, Save The Bay agreed to abandon the lawsuit. In return, the airport would conduct water-quality monitoring and sampling, and make operational changes to minimize the glycol spillage. CLF did not sign on to the agreement. D'Ovidio said he didn't want to give up the right to sue RIAC.

"The airport has taken some strong steps to improve," says Save The Bay's John Torgan. "They dramatically reduced glycol runoff in the last two years, though there are still odors and complaints. We felt that the agreement was the better prospect for immediate action." RIAC also said it would sponsor an annual Earth Day cleanup of Buckeye Brook for the next five years, and create a small open water area within the wetlands south of Warwick Pond to improve fish habitat.

Last November, DEM finally issued a new pollution-discharge permit to the airport. CLF hailed it as "groundbreaking ... one of the most advanced and stringent" permits to a U.S. airport ever. But the airport appealed, saying it would cost $10 million to comply with the permit, and adding that it couldn't control all of the de-icing activity on the airport, which is managed by various operators and airlines.

D'Ovidio says the appeal is disheartening. "As a quasi-state agency, they should be a model of co-operation, not resistance," he says. "They're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop that airport. They have to spend the money to comply with this permit, it's part and parcel of doing business."

Brenda Pope, who oversees environmental management for RIAC, says recent sampling shows that the outfalls from the airport are meeting water-quality standards. "From October to May, we install catch-basin inserts to keep the de-icer runoff out of the storm drains," she says. Mobil collection units vacuum the stray fluid off the ramp. Their efforts meet standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, she said.

Insana sees the brook as part of a bigger picture. It's not just about the herring, or the airport, but the whole community. The old woman who asks him sorrowfully when the smell will go away, the third-grader who wants to fish and swim in the brook. "This is my neighborhood. I'm here forever," says Insana. "The airport needs to be a good neighbor and clean up after itself. When the watershed is polluted, it's Narragansett Bay that's hurt. They've got to fix this first, before they talk about expanding the airport."


On a bright winter afternoon in January, Insana steps carefully onto the ice covering the brook, where it crosses under Old Warwick Avenue behind the Knights of Columbus hall, and declares it safe. We hike along the frozen streambed and in minutes, the road is lost to view. Tall trees on either side of the brook reach into the bright blue sky, the dense underbrush and deep snow on either side hide any sign of civilization. A white-bellied hawk swoops overhead, and lands in a nearby tree to watch us. Animal tracks form a path down the center of the ice, dogs or maybe coyotes, and along the banks are tracks from birds and squirrels, but ours are the only human tracks. Cardinals and a woodpecker flit past. "It's another world in here, right in the middle of Warwick," says Insana.

A lone figure appears on the ice ahead, local resident Tom Rush out for a hike in the fresh air, complete with snowshoes and backpack. He says he's lived near the brook for a decade, and does this every winter. A wood-duck box hangs from a pole in a little side-creek, near the spot where Insana remembers a neighbor's dog drowned, one winter when the ice was too thin. "Another soul lost to Buckeye Brook," he says. As we head back to the road, he worries that local kids will see our tracks and venture onto the ice, which is safe only in patches. The brook brings a little bit of wilderness into this civilized place, and people are drawn to it.


The Buckeye Brook Coalition continues to grow. The group's list of members and friends numbers 90, and as a state Watershed Council, it now has official standing to act as the brook's representative. Volunteers monitor the water quality and take part in a fish census with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. In May, the coalition will host a stewardship workshop, sponsored by the R.I. Rivers Council, to help train advocates for other watersheds around the state. In the works for next spring is the First Annual 5K Herring Run, a regional race with cash prizes, to help boost awareness of the brook. Educational programs are offered, such as a cultural tour showcasing the brook's history.

Insana volunteers hundreds and hundreds of hours every year. "I go to about three meetings a week, on average," he says. "I do it for passion. It makes me feel good to do it. I do it to give back to Buckeye Brook, which gave me so many good times."

The brook now is cleaner than it used to be, he says, mainly because he keeps it clean. If there's a shopping cart or a tire in there now, he gets it out. One threat has been deflected -- an option to extend the airport's crosswind runway southward, which would have directly impacted the brook and its wetlands, has been shelved. "I think they knew they'd never get that past the Buckeye Brook Coalition," says John Torgan. But the brook is far from safe. In the last two seasons, the herring run has been sparse. Nobody's sure if that's natural variation or a slow decline. Plenty of challenges remain.

"In the end, it's about people's values," says Torgan. "How do we want these places to be in the future?" If Rhode Islanders want an abundance of fish, they will have to protect the places where fish go to spawn. If they want clean rivers and streams for their children and grandchildren, they will have to be vigilant, and restrain polluters.

As for Buckeye Brook, it may not be saved yet, but at least it has a fighting chance. "Steve and the coalition really put Buckeye Brook on the map," says Torgan. "It's now a factor to be considered. It won't be taken for granted anymore."


All text and graphics Copyright 2005 by Natural News Network.