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Kayaking on the Westfield River

Your River

About the River

Wildflowers along the Westfield - photo by Dan Minicucci

Photo by Dan Minicucci

“The Westfield River is recognized as one of the most intact river systems in southern New England, and one of the healthiest tributaries to the Connecticut River. The Westfield River watershed supports a remarkable diversity of common and rare plant and wildlife species, exemplary natural communities, and exceptional scenic and recreational resources. Much of the watershed is rural, with relatively low human population densities and extensive areas of un-fragmented forest. As a result of high ecological integrity and biodiversity significance, several regional conservation planning efforts have identified the Westfield River watershed as among the high priorities for conservation in New England. Active partnerships among a broad range of public agencies, non-profit organizations, and concerned individuals work to conserve the Westfield River watershed, and to identify and mitigate threats to the Westfield River and its tributaries.

- Excerpt from the Invasive Plant Species on the East Branch and the West Branch of the Westfield River: Management Priorities for Protecting Natural Communities and Rare Species Final Report

Watershed Context

Rising along the eastern slopes of the Berkshires, the river flows southward through rural forested communities, winds its way through urban centers at the southern end of its journey, and finally enters into the Connecticut River in Agawam. In all, the watershed encompasses 517 square miles and includes 636 miles of rivers and streams, as well as over 4550 acres of lakes and ponds.

The Westfield River is a major tributary to the Connecticut River made up of three branches, the East, Middle and West Branches. The river drops 2,000 feet in elevation before entering the Connecticut River. Thin soils in the hills combined with steep gradients produce extreme and rapid differences in the rate of flow, occasional flooding, and at times low water conditions. Roughly 78 miles in 10 towns of the Westfield River and its 3 branches have been designated as a National Wild and Scenic River, the first in Massachusetts.

Approximately 98,000 (2010) people live in one of the 29 communities, 23 with significant portions, within the watershed. The watershed has a population density of less than half a person per acre—the second lowest density of all Massachusetts watersheds, likely a contributing factor in making it one of the state’s best coldwater fisheries.

The Westfield watershed is a recovered and recovering landscape – one that was completely cleared in the early 1800’s. The Westfield River basin as an ecoregional priority within the Lower New England/Northern Piedmont ecoregion—an area that stretches from Maryland to Maine and comprises parts of 12 states. The Nature Conservancy identified several large forest blocks ("matrix forests") on the Berkshire plateau as being among the highest priorities for conservation. They provide opportunities for movement of wide-ranging species across the landscape as well as high quality breeding habitat for interior nesting neotropical migrant birds.  These blocks represent the highest quality and least fragmented areas of their kind in the Northeast, and thereby represent biodiversity of global significance.

Wildlife Habitat

Thirty nine state-listed rare species, two federally-listed species, and thirteen ecoregional target species have been recorded in the area. The Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program identified 56% of the Westfield River watershed as either Biocore Habitat or Supporting Landscape Habitat. Biocore Habitat is the most viable habitat for rare species and natural communities in Massachusetts. Supporting Natural Landscape Habitat is the buffer area that connects Biocore Habitat, and identifies large, naturally vegetated blocks that are relatively free from the impacts of roads and other development.

According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Westfield River maintains the best example of a diverse riverine fish community in the Commonwealth. The Westfield River relative integrity provides an environment suitable for native riverine species.

The upper reaches of the watershed offer exceptional habitat for coldwater species (brook trout, slimy sculpin, longnose dace); the lower mainstem provides high quality spawning habitat for three species of migratory fish (American shad, blueback herring, and sea lamprey). The Westfield River is particularly important habitat for shad, hosting one of the largest runs of any Connecticut River tributary. State-endangered Lake Chub only occur in the upper reaches of the Westfield River in Massachusetts and represent the southern-most extent of this species.

Natural Communities
The Westfield River supports several natural riverine communities that are uncommon in Massachusetts and are high priorities for conservation. These include riverside seep and high-terrace floodplain forest natural communities, as well as variants of the high-energy riverbank natural community.

Rivershore Meadow, East Branch, Photo Credit: Glenn Motzkin

Rivershore Meadow, East Branch, Photo Credit: Glenn Motzkin

Rivershore Meadows

Rivershore meadow communities extend for several miles along the East Branch, representing the best examples and largest extent of such natural communities observed in Massachusetts (Motzkin et al, 2013).  Rivershore meadows are level to gently sloping communities that are dominated primarily by perennial graminoid and forb species. Woody species such as Silky Willow (Salix sericea), Silky Dogwood (Swida amomum), and Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) are often present, but generally are not dominant. Vegetation structure and composition vary considerably within rivershore meadows, with some ‘zonation’ apparently related to differences in elevation, substrate, frequency of flooding, and degree of ice scour.

Narrow, low-lying areas near the rivers’ edge and scoured or eroded depressions with moist, mineral substrates are characterized by sparse to moderate cover of low sedges and rushes. Rivershore meadows commonly occur above sparsely vegetated cobble shores. Although frequently flooded during periods of high water, rivershore meadows occur above summer low water levels. In addition to frequent flooding, rivershore meadows are occasionally impacted by extreme flood events. For instance, the flood event associated with Tropical Storm Irene in late August 2011 resulted in substantial and variable erosion and deposition across the active floodplain, including the rivershore meadows. Frequent flooding and occasional extreme events no doubt contribute to the occurrence and persistence of extensive rivershore meadow communities, although the impacts of storm events on individual rivershore meadows and plant populations are highly variable.

Riverside Seep, Photo Credit: Glenn Motzkin

Riverside Seep, Photo Credit: Glenn Motzkin

Riverside Seeps

Riverside seep communities occur occasionally along the banks of the Westfield River, in areas where groundwater discharges from adjacent slopes onto sites that are kept open by flooding, ice, or erosion. Groundwater discharge in seeps may be diffuse or concentrated in seepage rivulets, and groundwater flow apparently varies substantially among seeps; some seeps may dry out during the summer, whereas others flow year-round, including during periods of summer drought. Some riverside seeps along the East Branch occur in association with near-surface bedrock, whereas others occur at the base of slopes with deeper soils. In some cases, riverside seeps may develop in areas where groundwater flows over soil hardpan layers (Thompson and Sorenson 2000).

Floodplain Forest, Photo Credit: Dan Minicucci

Floodplain Forest, Photo Credit: Dan Minicucci

Floodplain Forests

Floodplain forests occur on terraces that are flooded occasionally or infrequently during times of high water. Where the river is bounded by steep slopes, floodplain forests are either absent or limited to a narrow band. In areas with more gentle topography, high-terrace floodplain forests occur at elevations above rivershore meadows and riverside seeps, and below the upland woodlands that are protected from flooding even during major storm events.

The Nature Conservancy identified several regionally important floodplain forests, including high gradient river floodplain forests along the Westfield River in Huntington and Chester. High gradient river floodplains are defined based on the relatively higher flow energy/velocity as evidenced through the effects of scour and disturbance. High gradient floodplains are recognized by a river channel that has either a cobble or gravel bottom. Re‐sprouting multi‐trunked trees on the riverbanks that are bent in the downstream direction and that have wounds on the upstream side of the trunk are another identifying characteristic. Two high gradient river floodplain subtypes can be distinguished. The first is a more moderate gradient/energy river where streambeds are gravelly and meandering, while the second is of higher gradient/energy river with a cobble stream bed and a straighter channel. The two types are combined for the Connecticut River basin because both types share the same dominant species and differ mainly in fluvial geomorphology.

The main ecosystem function provided by these floodplain forests is to slow flood waters and reduce soil erosion. The dominant physical processes are frequent flooding typically of short duration and flood disturbance associated with a more extreme event (10-year reoccurrence interval) and/or ice scour. 

Land Use
The watershed is home to nearly 100,000 people, with land use characterized by 7 percent agricultural, 12 percent developed and 82 percent undeveloped, and with roughly 27 percent of all land permanently protected as open space. The watershed is divided into distinctly rural and urban communities. The upper reaches of the watershed are primarily rural communities distinguished by unfragmented forests and scattered with agricultural, seasonal, and home-based businesses. The communities of Westfield, Agawam, West Springfield, and Holyoke in the lower (southeastern) basin are urbanized with the greatest job opportunities. The rural and suburban communities surrounding the region’s job center are experiencing the most significant growth.

Recreation
The river and other lakes and ponds in the watershed are widely used for fishing, swimming, kayaking and canoeing. Sections of the West, Middle and East Branches are noted in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s River guide for Massachusetts Connecticut and Rhode Island. The East Branch provides one of the longest whitewater runs in Massachusetts. The winter pool release at the Knightville Dam triggers the annual Westfield River Whitewater Canoe Races, the longest continuing running race in the in the United States. Besides the Whitewater Races, other portions of the Westfield River provide the only high turbulence whitewater boating opportunities in the state that are not dam regulated.

The Appalachian Trail crosses October Mountain State Forest in Becket. The West Branch also contains 10 beautiful stone arch railroad bridges known as the Keystone Arches. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the arches are a popular trail destination point. The watershed contains many other opportunities for hiking, bicycling and camping.