Higher Tides Hurting R.I. Marshes

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Sea levels are rising faster than most scientist predicted, and Narragansett Bay is no exception. Since 1930, the water level in the bay has climbed some 8 inches, or about an inch a decade.

In recent months, however, tide levels in Rhode Island have climbed about 4 to 5 inches higher at both high and low tides. This phenomenon has been happening since June, so scientist say it's too early to link the tidal increase to climate change or other causes. But while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Ocean Service tries to explain the deviation, the added water is already having an impact on the environment. In some parts of the bay, salt marshes struggle to drain the excess water, turning the vegetation into mud flats.

Wenley Ferguson, Save The Bay's director of restoration, said if the problem persists marshes will deteriorate "more dramatically and more quickly." Coastal habitats such as Colt Park in Bristol and the Narrow River in Narragansett are among several sites being monitored for increased marsh erosion.

Matunuck Beach in South Kingstown, which has one of the highest coastal erosion rates on the East Coast, provides an early example of the situation that will be faced all along the Ocean State’s coastline with sea-level rise and increasing coastal storms, according to Save The Bay’s Jane Austin.

To deal with the problem, the town has applied for a permit from the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and secured $2.5 million in Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) funding to build a sheet-pile bulkhead against coastal erosion along a 900-foot stretch of Matunuck Beach Road. A hearing on the project is tentatively scheduled for sometime in January.

These concerns aren't going unnoticed. Projects by the University of Rhode Island, Save The Bay, the CRMC, NOAA and the state Division of Planning are monitoring the impacts of extreme tides and sea-level change across the bay and entire state. These organizations also offer public education campaigns.

This fall, Save The Bay launched a program using volunteers to take photos of trouble spots during storms and monthly moon tides. The project will resume in March. The Sea Grant program at URI organized a similar statewide volunteer photo project over three days in October. 

In January, CRMC plans to hold seminars for citizen reporters to observe high-water events such as road flooding and beach overwash.

These efforts fit in with other state initiatives to help city and town planners build, or even abandon, roads and other infrastructure projects exposed to encroaching water. All the projects are tied in with the centralized mitigation and adaptation policies being drawn up by the newly formed state Climate Change Commission, which held its first meeting Dec. 6.

But citizen involvement is critical to educating the entire state about climate-change adaptation as its happening. The volunteers, Ferguson said, "become ambassadors to share their stories and get the word out to the public that this is a reality and something we have to deal with."