Currents of Change Sweep Through the Bay

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

For centuries, those who have lived and worked within the Narragansett Bay watershed have tailored the valuable ecosystem to suit their needs.

Native Americans burned forest underbrush to create farmland. Colonists cleared forests for fuel.

Dams have been built on nearly every waterway — first to power sawmills and gristmills, later to power factories and then to develop drinking-water reservoirs.

In 1793, Samuel Slater built a water-powered textile mill on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket. It was the first successful power mill built in the United States, marked the beginning of the nation’s Industrial Revolution and spawned a burgeoning local manufacturing economy made possible by Narragansett Bay’s rivers and ports.

Shorelines have been developed for transportation, military, energy and commercial purposes. Railroads and bridges have been built on, around and across the bay, and, as cities and towns grew, streams became stormwater pipes and wastewater treatment plants were built to handle the demands of 2 million people who live in the Narragansett Bay watershed.

Today, land-use management is among the highest of priorities for local environmentalists.

“Taking down habitat for development is a growing trend,” said Richard Ribb, program director for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program. “Fourteen percent of the entire Narragansett Bay watershed is impervious.”

Hard surfaces, such as asphalt, concrete and roofing, and soils compacted by urban development don’t allow water to seep into the ground. Water that doesn’t soak into the ground becomes runoff and travels to the nearest body of water, usually carrying pollutants and debris.

As the amount of impervious surfaces increases, typically through construction and development, more runoff is created and less water is able to sink into the ground. Infiltration is important because groundwater travels slowly to creeks and streams and sustains their flows through drier spells. Water that travels slowly through the ground also gets filtered before dumping into a waterway.

In Rhode Island, where development is outpacing population growth by 9 percent, according to Ribb, that carries added significance since 75 percent of the population lives in a 40-mile-long urban/suburban corridor along the shores of Narragansett Bay and in the valleys of the Blackstone and Pawtuxet rivers.

The Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program has projected development will consume an additional 107,000 acres in the next 20 years.

To soften the environmental impacts caused by this predicted development, organizations such as the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve and Grow Smart Rhode Island, among a host of others, are promoting proactive planning and smarter growth techniques, such as reducing road widths and building fewer parking lots.

Land-use planning and low-impact development are being touted as key initiatives that will help lessen the environmental impacts of sprawl.

“We’re not going to stop development, but we can’t continue to cut down forests,” said Jennifer West, the coastal training program coordinator for the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve.

The University of Rhode Island graduate helps decision-makers better understand the connections between development and its effects on the bay. Her priority audience is municipal officials, including planning boards and town and city councils.

“We hope to help municipal officials and developers make better land-use decisions,” West said. “We hope to show decision-makers that growth should be concentrated to those areas that make the most sense. Development anywhere impacts the bay. Development in Woonsocket impacts the bay.”

Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns have adopted or drafted a comprehensive development ordinance.

More environmentally conscious development comes with many advantages, West said. They include preserving land without having to buy it, preserving aesthetic features and scenic views, and reducing stormwater runoff.

“We’ve been building out the landscape for 300 years and that has a cumulative impact on this watershed,” said Tom Ardito, outreach and policy coordinator for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program.

Growth pressures
To better deal with development, Rhode Island needs improved measures for controlling growth pressures, according to Ardito.

“Other states are more advanced when it comes to treating runoff in a more effective way,” said Ardito, who mentioned Florida and Oregon as two such states. “Tons of runoff gets through our existing infrastructure.”

He suggested using more of Rhode Island’s federal stimulus money on wastewater technology and infrastructure, instead of on old standbys.

“Repaving projects aren’t green and they don’t create that many jobs,” he said.

To help officials and the public better understand the bay region and the impact development has on it, the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program created “Currents of Change,” a study released last month after two years of research.

The estuary program worked with host of agencies and individuals in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts who share a stake in protecting this vast watershed.

“You always hear about how the bay is one of the most studied places,” Ribb said, “but these were individual studies and none of them were connected. There was no movie of the bay.”

He hopes “Currents of Change” provides a starting point for better developing and managing information about the Narragansett Bay region, which includes the Wood-Pawcatuck river system and Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds.

This region is 2,066 square miles, with 50 percent in Massachusetts, 48 percent in Rhode Island and 2 percent in Connecticut.

“We need to look at the region as a whole, not just as a body of water but as an ecosystem, and see how everything is connected,” Ribb said. “Holding the line is progress because we don’t know all the conditions. The information is changing over time.”

Changing concerns
In just the past three-plus decades, water quality in the Narragansett Bay region has improved, thanks to investments in wastewater infrastructure, tighter state and federal regulations, industry changes and a shift in the economy.

“The levels of metals and organics from industry have gone down,” said Chris Deacutis, chief scientist for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, “and hydrocarbons are decreasing.”

Narragansett Bay waterways are being contaminated with less of these pollutants for a number of reasons.

Leaded gasoline is gone, and cars run cleaner and leak less oil.

Textile mills along the banks of the Blackstone River have all but disappeared, taking with them the dyes and chemicals that were spilled for nearly a century into Rhode Island and Massachusetts waterways.

Restaurants and residential/office space are the new faces of the 25-block Jewelry District in Providence, which at its peak in 1976 employed 32,500 jewelry workers. Most of those jobs have long since disappeared, along with the industry’s heavy metals and toxins that would find their way into the Providence River.

Despite these gains, however, the Narragansett Bay watershed still faces a host of troubles, from the growing emergence of invasive species to pressures caused by development to what impact chemicals in the water from the increased use of pharmaceuticals, birth control and beauty products will have on the long-term health of wildlife and humans.

“We have made a remarkable improvement in the health of Narragansett Bay by addressing our deficient combined sewer overflow system and minimizing nitrogen discharges, but we have a long way to go,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said a water infrastructure hearing earlier this month in Providence.