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Making Waves — Rhode Island

June 4, 2024

Climate problems may seem overwhelming, but people all around this great nation are taking action. This week we’re looking at RHODE ISLAND and the question is: Can Rhode Island meet its coastal challenges?

Rhode Island, the Ocean State, is the smallest of our United States. With Narragansett Bay cutting into its interior, it has one of the highest ratios of coast-to-inland acreage in the US.

The first mechanized textile mill was built in RI in the 1790s, powered by a river in the northern bay at Pawtucket. A hundred years later and 20 miles south, the city of Providence built a sewer system that discharged into the bay. Although sewage treatment has improved in the 20th c., marine ecosystems off RI’s beautiful shorelines continue to be adversely affected by other pressures such as farming in inland areas and coastal over-development.

Rhode Island’s long economic history is intertwined with Block Island Sound and Atlantic fisheries and comes with a legacy of some of the longest datasets covering the rise and fall in abundance of fish species. Long-term downward trends are undeniable. With current climate threats – especially the intensifying coastal storms and rising sea levels – the work of protecting coastal ecosystems is more pressing:
Preserving underwater eelgrass meadows that provide eco-services (nurseries for marine species; erosion control; water purification services)
Restoring salt marsh habitats, to form strong lines of coastal defense against storms
Cleaning up estuaries that feed the bay
Altering fishing methods and improving real-time harvest data (to set catch limits)
Spreading awareness of what the fisheries are catching, to inform local eating habits.
Eliminating the common reed (Phragmites australis), an 8’ fast-spreading invasive grass – a huge problem in the Great Lakes, also.

There is not enough space to address all the ways we can help coastal ecosystems recover. One big reason to do so is their role as carbon sinks. To learn more about these life-sustaining habitats, search for “Understand Blue Carbon,” a well-produced series in a handful of 5-minute episodes. I especially recommend the piece on seagrass restoration.
YouTube video: Environmental Justice Foundation (March 15, 2021)
Blue Carbon – How seagrass is our ocean’s wonder plant… [~5 mins]

We humans appear to be posing a far greater threat to coastal ecosystems than the changing climate. While point sources of pollution (like municipal sewage) are being reduced, non-point sources (agriculture, residential septic drainage) are still carrying pollution into Narragansett Bay. Old septic systems in coastal communities are failing and leaking nitrogen-rich effluent into Narragansett Bay, causing toxic algal blooms. Critical salt marshes are sinking faster than they can rebuild, and eelgrass meadows are dying off.

Rhode Islanders are making some progress with these challenges, as illustrated in a few brief programs you can access on the internet. First, a short video about a new, less costly septic system being piloted by the Univ. of RI. Watch it. The time-lapse is oddly fascinating.
YouTube video (October 2022)
Town of Charlestown Experimental Septic System Install [3 mins 44 secs]

It’s not just the decay of older septic systems: private beachfront property is being lost to erosion at a rate of a foot per year, exposing residential septic drain fields & tanks. Flooding likewise leaves low-lying areas uninhabitable. Businesses in the flood zone are severely impacted. Something has to give. The state has established a $9.64 million fund to help relocate homeowners in 3 hard-hit metro areas; their lands will be added as conservation easements.

Smaller communities also are coming up with plans. Hear about a bold idea to help a strip mall area in the community of Warren, RI, proposed two years ago, that helped fuel the fund to move businesses to higher ground:
Podcast: The Public’s Radio (Apr. 22, 2020)
Episode: Mavericks pitch novel buyout plan for flood-prone Warren [~7 mins]

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, have a comment about my column, or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned. Happy listening!
[email protected]

Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest County News Journal 03-15-2023. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year and a quarter.

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