Rhode Island’s Most Important Waters are Drowning
Development and rising waters take their toll on state’s dwindling wetlands
October 3, 2015
In the late 18th century, along the banks of the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, R.I., money, technology and labor converged to provide the power that helped launch the country’s drive to industrialization. In the two-plus centuries since it transformed from a farming to manufacturing state, Rhode Island has lost thousands of acres of fresh and saltwater wetlands.
It’s not a coincidence, and Rhode Island is likely to continue to feel this substantial loss well into the future.
The success of Slater Mill inspired others to build mills throughout the Blackstone River valley, in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts. To take advantage of the river’s hydropower, new mill villages were built. To make way for the needed infrastructure, impervious surfaces replaced fields, forests were clear-cut, wetlands re-engineered and species lost.
Eugenia Marks, senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, said the historic era amounted to an “out-and-out destruction of wetlands.” She noted that Rhode Island has made improvements when it comes to protecting and restoring wetlands, but she fears appreciation for these indispensable areas is lacking.
“There is this negative image of wetlands — mosquitoes and at that all fiction about the bad things that happen in swamps and marshes,” Marks said. “But they’re also expressions of beauty. They shape our lives. Society doesn’t appreciate the need for vegetation. We don’t appreciate the complexity of life.”
Wetlands are vital for survival, supplying fresh water, food and building materials for both humans and nonhumans. These complex ecosystems are among the world’s most productive habitats. They are cradles of biological diversity. While the oceans are the planet’s collective heart, wetlands, like forests, are its vital organs.
Centuries of abuse have left them tarred, scarred, drained and polluted. More than 220 million acres of wetlands are thought to have existed in the lower 48 states as late as the 17th century, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since then, more than half of those wetlands have been excavated and lost to manmade uses.
Since the Industrial Revolution took Rhode Island by storm, the state has lost, according to the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), some 37 percent of its historic wetlands. Downtown Providence, for instance, was once known as the Great Salt Cove, before it was filled in and built upon. It’s now called Waterplace Park.
The ecological beating on Ocean State wetlands has been severe, and recovery work only began in earnest about a decade ago.
“We’re not purposely destroying wetlands anymore. That’s a good thing. We’ve stopped going backwards,” said Alicia Lehrer, executive director of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council. “We’re realizing how important wetlands are, and this importance is becoming common knowledge. It’s not just scientists who are saying so.”
Rhode Island wetlands currently cover some 65,000 acres, according to DEM. Most of Rhode Island’s 55,000 or so acres of freshwater wetlands — about 11 percent of the state’s landscape — are privately owned; about 16 percent are protected by federal, state or municipal government, or by non-governmental conservation organizations.
With a 400-plus-mile coastline, the Ocean State also supports a significant number of estuarine habitats — wetlands where fresh and salt waters mix.
These dynamic areas — tidal marshes, tidal creeks, tidal flats and salt marshes — support a variety of life and are significant staging areas for migrating plovers, sandpipers and terns. The prominent estuarine habitat in Rhode Island are salt marshes, which, DEM says, “are universally considered to be among the most important wildlife habitats in North America.”
Rhode Island will never get its lost wetlands back, at least not while humans roam its nearly 800,000 acres, but what is being done to restore the state’s damaged wetlands and protect its healthier ones?
Rhode Island’s wetlands, both coastal and inland, provide nursery habitat for fisheries, support recreational activities and tourism, sustain important economic benefits and play a key role in absorbing nutrients that would otherwise pollute local waters. They also play a critical role in providing clean drinking water.
The Ocean State’s collection of rivers, streams, swamps, salt marshes, vernal pools and estuaries help control flooding — an acre of wetland a foot deep, for example, can hold some 330,000 gallons of water — recharge groundwater, provide climate-change mitigation, and protect the shoreline from storm damage by absorbing wind and wave energy.
In fact, the economic value of each Ocean State acre of wetland for coastal protection is estimated at $2,930 annually. The state’s coastal wetlands also support a $150 million recreational fishery, as well as a tourism and outdoor recreation industry valued at more than $2 billion. Seventy-five percent of commercial fish species depend on estuaries for their primary habitat, spawning grounds and nursery areas.
But these important ecosystems are constantly under pressure. In urban areas, wetlands are lost to economic development. In suburban areas, they are damaged by sprawl. In rural areas, they are altered by farming practices. There’s the ongoing threats of road and highway construction, the excavation of ports and marinas, and leaking underground storage tanks.
The Providence-based Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council (WRWC) has been studying the wetlands within the river’s watershed since the 1990s. Restoration of the tributaries that feed the 18-mile-long river, which flows through six cities and towns into Narragansett Bay, “is the best bang for the buck” when it comes to restoring one of Rhode Island’s most damaged rivers, according to Lehrer.
A 2001 study found much of the natural riparian forestland along the Woonasquatucket River has been significantly altered by human activity, with only 19 percent of the river corridor exhibiting an existing riparian forest buffer.
This lack of a vegetated cushion isn’t good for people, ecosystems, wildlife, the environment or public health, and it’s a common problem throughout Rhode Island.
Forest canopies, for one, shade rivers and help keep them cool. Fish, especially trout, thrive in colder waters. Cooler river temperatures also improve water quality and clarity, and help control invasives and algae growth.
Both wetlands and riparian areas provide water-quality services by removing, filtering and storing pollutants such as sediment, nitrogen, phosphorus and some heavy metals.
Recent WRWC restoration efforts have focused on projects that control stormwater runoff to reduce the amount of pathogens and nutrients being washed into sensitive wetlands. Lehrer said such work is a national trend as well.
“There’s a lot of studies right now that deal with stormwater management,” said Lehrer, the WRWC’s executive director for the past seven years. “Runoff is a problem.”
Since 2008, the WRWC has completed two projects to help reduce the amount of runoff draining into Woonasquatucket River wetlands. In Glocester, the organization improved the vegetation around Cutler Brook to help reduce the amount of pollutants being washed into this wetland. A year later, in Smithfield, it conducted a similar project around Stillwater River.
Meg Kerr, director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island, believes the state needs to soften its urban landscape with big and little projects that better protect wetlands. She noted the work of the Green Infrastructure Coalition and Groundwork Providence.
The Green Infrastructure Coalition, of which WRWC is a member, is a partnership of 37 member organizations focused on naturally treating and managing stormwater that is polluting Greater Providence and Aquidneck Island wetlands. Coalition partners have built rain gardens, created amphibian habitat and installed permeable-pavement parking lots.
Groundwork Providence has helped build community gardens, and works with homeowners to tear up unwanted asphalt and pavement on their properties.
By the early 1800s, Burrillville, a rural community in the northwest corner of Rhode Island, had become a hub of manufacturing activity, as its eight villages attest.
The Clear River was tapped for water power to run saw and grist mills, and, as Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust, noted, just about every river in the area was dammed, blocked, diverted, drained and/or engineered to power textile manufacturing.
All these mills provided plenty of jobs during the Industrial Revolution, but they also employed children, and operated with no environmental or worker-safety controls. These mills also polluted many of the state’s rivers, streams and brooks. Much of that pollution legacy remains buried in sediment, as newer problems created by 20th-century urbanization, sprawl and carbon pollution have surfaced.
The nearly 10-mile-long Clear River is classified as “impaired” by DEM. Much of the river is polluted by enterococci — fecal contamination from wastewater treatment plants, cesspools, stormwater runoff and animal waste, both domestic and wild.
“The rivers up here have historically been impaired,” said Roselli, a member of the land trust since 1999. “Back in the day you knew what color clothes were being dyed in the mills because that would be the color of the river that day.”
The days of unregulated and free-for-all polluting maybe over, but Rhode Island’s wetlands are still hurting, and threatened, most notably from development pressures. For about a decade, until the town of Burrillville, in 2007, in a forward-thinking transaction, transferred a 16-acre parcel across the street from Wallum Lake and transversed by the Clear River to the local land trust, developers longed to drain the wooded property and build houses.
The state, in a recent move in the opposite direction, has celebrated the construction of a new natural-gas power plant near the banks of the Clear River. Like naming a gas-guzzling SUV after a pristine natural resource, this new fossil-fuel facility is named after the river it will likely help keep impaired.
When construction of the Clear River Energy Center is complete, it’s expected to employee less than 30 full-time workers.
Working mills along the Clear River have gone the way of the passenger pigeon — and most of the structures have since been lost to fire — but the wetland that eventually follows into the Blackstone River is still in recovery. It likely will be for a long time.
Besides being polluted by stormwater runoff from a matrix of impervious surfaces, its riverbanks host the Eleanor Slater Hospital — complete with riverside laundry and wastewater facilities — a plastics manufacturer, an older fossil-fuel power plant, a school-bus depot, a closed landfill and the Burrillville Sewage Treatment Plant.
This type of human impact isn’t unique to the Clear River. Such waterside usages stress much of Rhode Island’s wetlands. Roselli noted there are neighborhoods in Burrillville that still have no catch basins, sending runoff into the Clear, Branch and Chepachet rivers.
During ecoRI News’ recent afternoon exploring the Clear River with Roselli, we followed a path along the chain-link fence of the Burrillville Sewage Treatment Plant to a new canoe launch. The air reeked with what Roselli called “the perfume of modern living.”
The conservationist used to regularly paddle the Clear River, but it’s been about 20 years since he last did so. It is a difficult river to navigate, but Roselli said the river’s impaired status is the bigger deterrent — for him and others.
“It’s a gorgeous ride, but nobody uses the river anymore,” Roselli said. “A river in rural Rhode Island is rarely used for recreation because of the bacteria count. Rivers in urban centers are even more impaired and don’t stand a chance of being improved unless we mount a concerted effort to fix the problem. No matter how much we say we love our rivers and waterbodies, we continue to throw and dump stuff into them.”
All that dumping — from a supermarket parking lot that sends runoff directly into a stream that feeds the Clear River to a pipe from a roof that drains directly into that same stream to air conditioners that drip into a wetland below — creates an cumulative impact.
Those three examples, all avoidable and fixable, are concentrated in the downtown area of the Burrillville village of Pascoag, where taxpayer dollars were recently spent to showcase this polluted waterway. The money was used to build a new bridge and a beautiful riverwalk. Impaired water, not safe for human contact, continues to flow beneath both.
“Impacts to wetlands aren’t hidden. They’re right out in the open. We forget about the impact of runoff from things like roofs and decks. We forget about allowing stormwater from a parking lot to run directly into a waterbody, when, perhaps, a vegetated buffer would have been a better idea,” said Roselli, a resident of Harrisville village since 1983. “It’s almost a shame this pretty walkway was even built. There are days when you look out from here and it’s not that appealing. Some days it looks like a running sewer.”
About 50 percent — some 4,000 acres — of the estuarine wetlands present in Rhode Island at the time of European settlement have been lost, according to DEM. Much of that loss has come since the Industrial Revolution ushered in the practice of draining and filling wetlands, to make room for petroleum storage facilities, power plants, docks, marinas, industrial parks, junkyards and landfills.
These significant wetlands are now facing another more-recent threat: climate-change impacts such as sea-level rise. As sea levels rise, marshes migrate inland to maintain tidal influence without being continuously submerged. However, that natural process only works if manmade structures aren’t in the way. Rhode Island has built plenty of obstacles, and wetlands are drowning because of it.
“There’s a lot of hardened shoreline in Rhode Island and little space for wetlands to migrate,” said Tom Borden, program director for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program. “A lot of existing wetlands are going to drown in place.”
Few would be foolish enough to argue that Narragansett Bay’s estuary isn’t the Ocean State’s most important wetland area. This vital wetland even has two agencies — the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program and the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve — monitoring its well-being.
The threats to this estuary and its collection of wetlands are the usual suspects: bacterial contamination and nutrient enrichment; rising waters; and development. Its waters are exhibiting an increased array of nutrient-related troubles, such low dissolved-oxygen levels, fish kills, eelgrass loss and macroalgae blooms, according to both federal and state agencies.
There’s also another threat buried in Ocean State mud. Purple marsh crabs are feeding on vast patches of marsh grass and marsh fiddler crabs are digging networks of burrows that weaken marsh soils and increase erosion. The loss of predators and the impacts of climate change are among the reasons the population of both species are increasing.
Wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the EPA advises that adverse impacts on these areas “should be avoided to the maximum extent possible.”
Despite increased protections and restoration progress, there are thousands of acres of degraded coastal and freshwater wetlands throughout southeastern New England. In fact, 361,000 acres of coastal wetlands were lost in the eastern United States between 1998 and 2004, according to the EPA.
Late last year, during a meeting of the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council, Caitlin Chaffee, a policy analyst for the Coastal Resources Management Council, said the agency’s Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) “paints kind of a dire picture about the future of our existing marshes and I’m afraid that it’s actually fairly conservative.”
The mapping project predicts half of Rhode Island’s existing marshes will be lost if the sea rises by 3 feet, a level that is expected to be reached by 2100.
One way to protect marshes from sea-level rise is to give them room to migrate inland. But, in many coastal communities, roads, homes and hard structures such as seawalls block the way, and removing those barriers, especially privately owned ones, can be difficult.
Restoring and protecting the Ocean State’s remaining coastal and inland wetlands will require making difficult decisions and exhibiting strong leadership. It also will take some small sacrifices, like easing up on the amount of lawn chemicals we throw around. Roselli mentioned the idea of putting a 5-cent tax on lawn fertilizer and using that money to fund the kind of projects being done by the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, Groundwork Providence and the Green Infrastructure Coalition.
“We need to stop using lawn fertilizer and start planting vegetated buffers like blueberry bushes,” he said. “You never see anyone using these beautiful, fertilized, green residential lawns sprayed with insecticides, herbicides and grub control because they’re poisonous waste dumps.”