Buckeye Brook group now 'official'

01:00 AM EDT on Friday, June 25, 2004
Journal Staff Writer

WARWICK -- The Buckeye Brook Coalition, a loose-knit organization of environmental activists, will be recognized as an arm of state government Wednesday when the Rhode Island Rivers Council presents the group a certificate declaring it a "watershed council."

The two-year-old coalition was founded by Warwick resident Steve Insana, to fight pollution in Buckeye Brook and protect the annual run of alewives and blue back herring. In a June 9 vote, the Rivers Council recognized the coalition as the Buckeye Brook Watershed Council, one of 11 such councils statewide.

Meg Kerr, chairwoman of the Rivers Council, will formally acknowledge the group's new status at 7 p.m. Wednesday, when it meets to elect officers at the Warwick Public Library, Sandy Lane.

The Buckeye Brook Watershed Council has legal standing to advise and testify before any state or local body when a pending issue may affect the brook or any of its tributaries, including Spring Green Pond and Warwick Lake.

It also is eligible now to apply for federal and state grants and to acquire land and develop it for public use.

"Now we're an institution," Insana said yesterday. "We have legal authority over the stream and the watershed, and whenever anything's going on, we have a seat at the table. It took two years to get this and I'm cooked," he said, with a laugh. "I'd like to take a step back now and see a new president elected."

Mayor Scott Avedisian and the City Council helped the group obtain recognition as a state watershed council.

"They have really been the leading group talking about water quality in the area around the airport and protecting the buckie runs," Avedisian said yesterday. "Becoming a watershed council gives them state standing so they can qualify for grant money. They've been doing everything on a shoestring, with a little bit of city money and a little fundraising, so this certainly opens doors for them."

The Rivers Council, a state agency, has no regulatory powers but is chartered to promote the public interest in freshwater streams and ponds.

(Rhode Island has nearly 1,500 miles of rivers, streams and brooks, and just under 21,000 acres of lakes and ponds.)

Insana took a public role in protecting the brook in 1999 when he started organizing Earth Day cleanups of the historic waterway. He founded the coalition three years later, to organize a growing body of volunteers and gain a voice in the debate over the planned expansion of T.F. Green Airport. (The main trunk of Buckeye Brook crosses airport property between its headwaters, at Spring Green Pond, and Narragansett Bay.

At public hearings on airport expansion, Insana said, "Everybody was talking about noise and land acquisition and air quality and I was the dummy getting up there saying, 'Hey, we've got a herring run over here in Buckeye Brook, we've got to protect this, we don't want to lose it.' "

The coalition was active last year in seeking enforcement of state wetland laws on airport property, regulating airport construction in or near the brook and requiring the Rhode Island Airport Corporation to obtain a discharge permit for aircraft deicer.

As part of a consent agreement on the permit, the corporation agreed to provide volunteers for the group's Earth Day cleanup this spring.

"We have a good relationship with the airport now," Insana said.

This year's herring run was "decent," he said, but numbers were down. At the height of the run, volunteers counted as many as 700 herring an hour swimming upstream to spawn in Warwick Lake and Spring Green Pond.

"When I was a kid, when the herring came it was a phenomenon," he said. "Now they're netting them [at sea], we've got the recreational fishermen netting them for bait, the stocks are depleted."

The herring run starts in mid-March, when the fish return from the Atlantic and swim upstream to spawn. The upstream migration ends in May, and the fry spawned in the headwaters can be seen swimming downstream through November.

The major focus of the Watershed Council, Insana said, will be to promote the restoration of the herring run back to historic levels.

The Rivers Council had asked the group to assume responsibility for the Greenwich Bay watershed as well, but it declined.

"That would be so much work it would be overwhelming," Insana said. "We thought we were better off staying smaller and more effective."