By FRANK CARINI
Rhode Island isn’t a blue state. It’s a blue-green one, in honor of toxic bacteria that regularly closes beaches to swimming and other water bodies to recreational fun and puts public health in jeopardy.
In fact, we can stop labeling states as simply red or blue. They’re all turning shades of blue-green-red. Outbreaks of potentially toxic algae are rising sharply this summer in lakes, rivers, and streams across the United States, according to the Environmental Working Group’s ongoing tracking of algae outbreaks.
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit has counted 144 algae outbreaks from California to the Northeast so far this year, compared to 169 in all of last year.
This pollution problem isn’t restricted to fresh waters. Florida has been hit particularly hard by toxic algae this summer. A total of 267 tons of marine life, including 72 goliath groupers and a 21-foot whale shark, have washed up on Florida beaches since July, thanks to a catastrophic red tide.
Here in the Ocean State this summer the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) and Department of Environmental Management (DEM) have recommended that the beach at Larkin Pond Campground in South Kingstown be closed to swimming after high bacteria counts were found in the water. Two other beaches on the pond — Camp Hoffman and Kingston’s Camp — were closed for the same reason.
Beaches at Echo Lake Campground in Glocester and Goddard Memorial State Park and the Kent County YMCA in Warwick have been off-limits to swimming.
The DEM has advised people to avoid contact with Mashapaug Pond and Roosevelt Lake in Providence. DOH has recommended the closing of Bonnet Shores Beach Club in Narragansett.
State officials have advised people to avoid contact with water from Turner Reservoir, Central Pond, Omega Pond, and the portion of Ten Mile River that flows between Turner Reservoir and Omega Pond.
In late July, the state agencies advised people to avoid contact with Slack Reservoir in Greenville because of a blue-green algae bloom. Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, can produce toxins, including microcystins, that can harm humans and animals. These blooms are nurtured by an overload of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen that wash into waters from over-fertilized lawns, agricultural operations, and combined sewer overflows.
On Aug 10, Third Beach in Middletown became the 29th Ocean State beach, both fresh and salt, to be closed to swimming this summer. Some beaches, such as Camp Grosvenor in North Kingstown, have been closed more than once. A few, such as Briar Point Beach in Coventry and Kingston’s Camp Beach, have been closed for more than 10 days this summer.
In moderation, algae provide balance for a healthy water ecosystem. However, climate change, nutrient pollution, development, and other manmade stresses are exacerbating a problem and causing blooms to develop earlier and stay longer.
A 2015 study found that humans are responsible for increased cyanobacteria growth.
Massive algal blooms, however, are just one of the many visible signs of global climate change currently playing out on the world stage: roaring wild fires out West; historic flooding up and down the East Coast; 12 tornadoes that stormed through central Iowa during one week last month; the number of “marine heat waves” roughly doubled between 1982 and 2016; Australia struggling with devastating drought; 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers have passed their sustainability tipping points; a sixth mass extinction has seen billions of populations of animals lost in recent decades.
These happenings are a collective harbinger of the new normal.
A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examines potential climate feedbacks that could push the planet into a “hothouse” state.
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2018 is on pace to be the fourth-hottest year on record. Only three other years have been hotter: 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Another recent study, published in IOPscience, suggests that to avoid a 2-degree Celsius global increase in temperature all existing proposed fossil-fuel power plants must not be built.
“Even if all currently planned projects are immediately suspended, up to 20 percent of global fossil-fuel generation capacity would still have to be stranded (that is, prematurely decommissioned, underutilized, or subject to costly retrofitting) if humanity is to meet the climate goals set out in the Paris Agreement,” according to the IOP report.
The governor may have signed an executive order last year “reaffirming Rhode Island’s commitment to the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement,” but the Ocean State certainly isn’t doing its best to address climate change.
The passing of environmentally friendly bonds, the building of the nation’s first offshore wind farm, handing out grant-funding morsels for environmental projects, and a fractured system of protecting open space aren’t enough, not even close. Rhode Island, with its advantageous size for implementing real change, keeps punting its responsibility into the future. It’s not a fair catch.
Anthropogenic climate change has exposed the foolishness of human neglect of the natural world. It’s way too late for timid responses like executive orders. Our selfish actions — individually, collectively, and politically — are creating a dystopian future. Many of these current and future manmade catastrophes could have been avoided with some foresight and sacrifice.
Human well-being and economic prosperity are tethered to nature, but modern humans have never acted like they are. Variety and abundance of life are the fundamental necessities of a habitable planet. Life can’t prosper on a sphere filled with humans, livestock, ticks, rats, mosquitoes, and jellyfish, and covered with over-fertilized soybean fields and overfished oceans.
Here in Rhode Island, a job plan focused “on putting cranes in the sky” is a cliche not a solution, especially when much of the development ignores the state’s acres and acres of already-disturbed areas and instead cuts further into forests, wetlands, farmland, and other open space.
Jobs are important, but they become meaningless if the planet is burning. The growing flames of climate change are being fanned by the building of stuff we don’t need in places that weaken ecosystems and jeopardize public health. We can put people to work building things in places that make economic, societal, and environmental sense. But it takes some sacrifice. We’re not good at sacrificing. It’s too hard.
The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and Rhode Island’s past as a costume-jewelry-manufacturing juggernaut are remembered fondly for the jobs that were created. What is largely forgotten is that the pollution, contamination, and environmental degradation created during this revered jobs explosion helped pave the way to our current situation.
The soils of productive landscapes have been turned to dirt. Groundwater has been drained beyond the reach of roots. There's barely a ripple in once-rich fishing grounds. Gyres of plastic marine debris are expanding. Bays, estuaries, and deltas have been choked of life. Rivers and lakes are turning a toxic blue-green. Brownfields and Super Fund sites have left behind toxic legacies. Fields, forests, and wetlands have been replaced by lawn and pavement.
Biodiversity is diminishing, and along with it our chances to adequately address the impacts of climate change before it’s much too late.
Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.