By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor
CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — Sage Witham’s freshly manicured fingernails were an elegant silver color, but they were covered in mud and sand as she and her classmates worked to plant native grasses at a salt marsh along the edge of Ninigret Pond. The Chariho High School junior wasn’t concerned about a little mud on her nails, though.
“I had them done for prom last week,” said Witham, a junior from Charlestown. “I don’t mind if they get ruined now.”
The students gathered May 21 at the marsh with staff from Save The Bay, as part of an extensive effort to restore the salt marsh, which had been drowning in place because of rising sea levels.
The 30-acre site had 30,000 cubic yards of sandy sediments deposited on it 18 months ago, to raise the elevation of the marsh and make it less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The sand had been dredged from the adjacent Charlestown Breachway.
The resulting moonscape was mostly devoid of vegetation, except for areas replanted by volunteers last year and a few wild plants that successfully pushed through the new layer of sediment. The students were aiming to expand that area of greenery to restore the natural function of the marsh.
The school has been involved in the project for five years, collaborating with educators from Save The Bay to learn about the role of salt-marsh ecosystems. They collect seeds from marsh grasses each fall and grow them into seedlings in the Chariho greenhouse each spring. Science teacher Stacie Pepperd uses the project in her agriculture and resource development classes to teach about alternative agricultural applications.
“This started as a small experiment five years ago, and year by year we’re taking part in different parts of the process,” she said. “The students are using their growing skills and seeing that the agriculture industry is not just for growing vegetables and other food products or ornamentals. This helps them see that there are environmental applications, too.”
In February in the Chariho greenhouse, the students planted about 1,000 seeds of cordgrass, a common native plant that grows in the lower sections of salt marshes and provides root structure that helps to stabilize the marsh and prevent erosion. They cared for the plants daily, monitored their growth and vigor, and transported them to the marsh for planting.
Sophomore Dalton Stone, who works in the greenhouse, has a strong interest in plants and flowers and envisions a career working with plant-based medicines or floral design.
“I like that we’re kind of rebuilding the bay with this project by using grasses that have been depleted because of storms,” the Richmond resident said. “I like that we’re making a difference.”
The project isn’t just a learning process for the students, however. It’s a learning process for Save The Bay and its partners, too, as they use this new strategy to protect coastal marshes.
“Every time we go out there, we’re learning something new about the marsh and about what plants survive where based on the new elevation of the site,” said David Prescott, Save The Bay’s South County coastkeeper and the leader of the planting effort, which is a partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Coastal Resources Management Council, the Salt Ponds Coalition, and the town of Charlestown.
Prescott then pointed to a distant section of the site where he learned another lesson last year: unless some sections of the newly planted marsh were fenced off, Canada geese would feast on the fresh shoots.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea level has risen about 10 inches around Rhode Island since 1930, and it’s projected to rise another 20 inches by 2030 and as much as 9 feet by 2100. By raising the elevation of the marsh by about a foot in some places, it buys time to allow the habitat to migrate inland and adapt to the rising seas.
“Nine feet of sea-level rise is going to have a devastating effect on the marsh habitat in the region, but we’re trying to preserve the ecosystem function of the marsh for as long as we possibly can and see if this technique is workable and transferable to other locations,” Prescott said.
The students involved in the replanting project have been enthusiastic about their role.
“They really like seeing the success of the plants they’ve grown, but they also like seeing the practical application of it,” Pepperd said. “This isn’t just your typical garden or farm or flower pot or pretty flowers. This project has really opened their eyes.”
Save The Bay is looking for volunteers to continue the marsh-grass replanting effort on June 1, 2 and 4. Those who are interested may sign up online.
Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.