Pressures Remain But Great Salt Pond Transformed from Cesspool to Block Island’s Signature Attraction
April 8, 2021
Block Island’s only estuary, the Great Salt Pond, is among the most popular harbors on the East Coast. But as recently as three-plus decades ago the 673-acre tidal pond was more open toilet than prized natural resource.
Sven Risom, 62, recalled swimming in the pond as a kid and his hand bumping into something he knew wasn’t a Baby Ruth. Plenty of other Block Island residents and visitors had similar experiences. No shellfishing was allowed because of the copious amount of sewage that had been dumped into the neglected pond during summertime fun.
Up until the late 1980s, boaters routinely pumped out their wastewater directly into the pond. Besides making swimming a health risk, life in and around the popular pond suffered.
Pollution and development have long placed enormous pressure on Great Salt Pond. Eelgrass, formerly abundant, has all but disappeared. Salt marsh has been filled. Unleashed dogs run through important wildlife habitat. Invasive species have taken hold in and around the pond. Dunes and other natural buffers are weakening. Elevated levels of nitrogen and fecal bacteria are still a concern. Surge from more frequent and intense storms is slowly filling a section of the pond with sand. Stormwater runoff is carrying silt into the waterbody.
This mix of stressors isn’t unique to this distinctive Block Island natural feature. But restorative and protective actions begun 35 years ago have made Great Salt Pond stand out among Rhode Island’s collection of coastal ponds. The pond, compared to mainland Ocean State salt ponds, is “relatively healthy,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Corrie Heinz was born and raised on Block Island. She lives a quarter-mile from Great Salt Pond and has spent the past 13 years owning and operating a kayak business from its shore.
She witnessed firsthand the miserable state of the pond. She was and continues to be part of the pond’s rehabilitation, doing volunteer work for the Committee for the Great Salt Pond and other organizations, such as the Block Island Conservancy. She called the pressure on the pond “great.” She’s concerned about the sheer number of people and boats that use the space. She’s worried that the pond’s carrying capacity will be breached.
“Pressure is building along its edges,” said Heinz, a University of Rhode Island graduate who studied environmental management. “We need a complete ecosystem approach for its protection.”
Plenty of time, money, and effort has already been invested to turn the pond into what Scott Comings, associate director of the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy, has said is “about as pristine a coastal pond as you can find in Rhode Island.”
“For the amount of use it gets, it’s in good shape,” he told ecoRI News last summer.
Risom, a New Shoreham Town Council member, said the pond’s renaissance began with a program to pump out boat waste tanks free of charge.
For that, Risom, the Great Salt Pond, and Block Island have Claire Costello and the late John O. Brotherhood Jr. to thank. The duo co-founded the Committee for the Great Salt Pond in 1987. Its name is uninspiring, but its work has been recuperative for both the beleaguered pond and the local economy.
“The pond wasn’t in good shape,” Costello said. “The virtues of the pond needed to be promoted and protected.”
Great Salt Pond, on the western shore of Block Island, was a freshwater pond as late as the mid-1800s. A channel opening it to Block Island Sound was dug by hand in the 1870s, and it has been a tidal salt pond ever since.
The pond, also known as New Harbor — Old Harbor, on the geographically opposite side of Block Island, is a man-made yacht basin where the ferries land — is relatively deep for a coastal lagoon, as 50 percent of it is more than 13 feet deep, with a maximum depth of 55 feet. Its deeper waters provide a winter refuge for species that typically move out of salt ponds during the winter.
This oasis in the middle of the ocean is an offshore refuge for juvenile fish, according to Comings.
The pond is home to baitfish such as silversides, mummichogs, and killifish and species of commercial and recreational importance such as tautog, black sea bass, scup, and squid. A number of tropical species also find their way to Great Salt Pond, including butterflyfish, mojarra, longhorn cowfish, lizardfish, chain pipefish, seahorses, and blue-spotted cornetfish.
The pond’s 2,120-acre watershed covers about a third of Block Island. It stretches about 1.2 miles southeast to a smaller pond, known as Trim’s Pond or Harbor Pond.
The Committee for the Great Salt Pond was initially created in opposition to a 1986 proposal to build a large ferry terminal in the pond. Costello and Brotherhood were concerned more parking, increased stormwater runoff, and additional discharges would exacerbate the pond’s woes.
The nonprofit’s efforts quickly expanded from opposition to the ferry terminal proposal to an all-encompassing mission to protect and restore the abused waterbody.
Improving the pond’s water quality was at the top of the new group’s to-do list. That meant stopping boaters from pumping their waste overboard. The Committee’s growing membership, which four years in, called nearly half of Block Island’s year-round residents members, started with education and conversations.
Progress wasn’t really made until the Committee turned a used vessel into a pumpout boat and started, with help from then-harbor master Larry Constantine and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, offering a free pump-out service to boaters. The town continues this free program today with five pumpout boats. The sewage is offloaded to the municipal sewer system.
Once the Committee tackled the pond’s boater wastewater problem, it began a water-quality testing program in partnership with URI. The organization’s old pumpout boat is now used for collecting water samples for testing. Committee members regularly test the pond’s water, plus the eight inflows that feed into it.
Pressures on Great Salt Pond have changed over the years. The Committee has successfully fought a condominium project and the expansion of the town’s water system, which Costello said would have supported irresponsible development.
The Committee supported efforts by the Coastal Resources Management Council to create a law that prohibited new homes around Great Salt Pond from building docks. It has put up an 18-year fight against a marina that wants to expand significantly.
Its work focuses on reducing nonpoint source pollution, protecting wetlands, maintaining buffer vegetation, and ensuring easy public access to the pond’s shoreline. Its efforts have been buoyed by The Nature Conservancy’s acquisition of land around Great Salt Pond.
Thanks to all of this community work to restore and protect the pond, shellfishing is thriving. There are oyster farms and a kelp farm. The pond is popular for kayaking, sailing, water skiing, and fishing. The Block Island Maritime Institute, built where the ferry terminal had been proposed, provides educational programs and related activities. The pond is now a major economic asset for both the town and the state.
“It’s a beautiful thing all that is happening on and around the pond,” said Costello, who hasn’t formally served on the Committee’s board for several years. “Life was brought back to the pond.”
Keeping the pond protected means balancing its multiple uses and various interests. It’s not as an easy task, as the pond is a magnet for tourists, boaters, anglers, paddlers, business opportunities, and development pressures.
Risom, who has led the Committee’s water-quality testing program for the past five years, is the nonprofit’s current treasurer, and a past president, said the organization’s annual meeting in September 2019 really opened his eyes to how ingrained Great Salt Pond is to life on Block Island.
For an hour and a half, 23 people, from the harbormaster to business owners to oyster farmers, spoke about how their way of life, both recreationally and economically, is tethered to this 1-square-mile area.
It’s a fact not lost on local officials.
New Shoreham’s 2016 comprehensive plan makes note of this delicate balancing act. It calls Great Salt Pond “a popular multiple use recreational and economic asset” and notes that this “magically scenic natural feature demands our protection.”
The document, which dedicates an entire section to Great Salt Pond, suggests establishing strict standards on the use of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides on private property, and limiting other sources of nitrogen inputs in the Great Salt Pond watershed.
“The spawning and nursery functions of Great Salt Pond are well documented; nitrogen, pesticide and herbicide runoff should be prevented from entering this important and vital system via waterfront properties and the watershed,” according to the 194-page plan.
Most of the island’s recreational boating activity takes place on Great Salt Pond, with services and boat slips provided by commercial marinas. There is a total of about 400 town and commercial moorings. There also is a large anchorage area in the eastern portion of the pond. The three private marinas provide more than 400 slips.
Surrounding the marinas are seaside restaurants and inns. Two of the marinas have bars and restaurants on their piers.
Cormorant Cove, a 32-acre waterbody in the southwest corner of Great Salt Pond, is bordered by private residences, some with docks. While there are homes along the pond’s shore, most buildings are set back from the water’s edge.
Beane Point, in the pond’s northern section, is bordered to the west and the north by dunes, salt marshes, and tidal flats in a conservation area and wildlife preserve owned by local entities and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Along the eastern shore of this area is a public beach, Andy’s Way, with a small parking area off Corn Neck Road. Small crafts are pulled up on the beach there during tourist season.
Some 1,000 visiting boats are moored in New Harbor on a typical summer weekend, and as many as 2,000 on holidays and other special occasions. On summer weekends, visiting boaters are estimated to represent a waterborne community of 3,000-6,000.
“Calling people’s attention to the pond showed it was savable,” Costello said. “We created a huge groundswell of awareness that led to a change in behaviors.”
Editor’s note: Second of a two-part series about the pressures, past and present, that the Great Salt Pond has faced and the efforts made to mitigate the stress on this significant waterbody. To read the first story, click here.