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Too Still Waters – Environmentalists Join Up to Keep R.I. Salt Ponds From Dying

October 2, 2007

By Katie Mulvaney; Journal Staff Writer

CHARLESTOWN – Del Barber remembers shellfishing in Foster Cove in the 1970s, when the waters were rich with oysters and blue crabs, and The Willows restaurant and resort had the only buildings along the shore.

“You could get three bushels in a couple of hours,” Barber says.

He watched in the ’80s and ’90s as people built summer houses with Palladian windows and decks stretching toward the ocean, homes that today command more than $1 million.

“When the houses went up, the oysters went away,” Barber says.

Oysters, quahogs and even the crabs that once flourished have become scarce, he says.

Barber would know. He has lived in a house overlooking the Pawcatuck River all of his 73 years and observes the coastal ponds closely. He is such a fixture on the South County fishing scene that locals have named a rock after him at the Quonochontaug Breachway.

He’s outspoken about the ills affecting the salt ponds that line Rhode Island’s southern coast. He blames tourists, who he says flout state shellfishing laws, and the construction of breachways de8cades ago, which has led to the buildup of sand in the ponds, robbing them of vital flushing from the ocean.

“It’s hampering the wildlife, the health of the ponds,” he says.

Once a commercial shellfisherman himself, Barber faults his counterparts for overfishing the waters and ripping away eelgrass – an essential hiding place for young fish and scallops – as they pursued shellfish and winter flounder.

But mostly he blames development, which he says has sent nutrients seeping from septic systems and cesspools into the fragile ecosystems, allowing algae to thrive to the detriment of other species.

His prognosis is grim. It’s too late for an easy fix, he says.

“It’s gonna take megabucks to fix the problems down there. It should’ve been done years ago.”

Barber is not alone in his concerns. For the first time in Rhode Island, environmental groups are banding together to raise awareness about what they view as mounting threats to the salt ponds, and to lobby for change.

They hope their voices, jointly, will be strong.

SALT PONDS ARE separated from the ocean by narrow barrier beaches. They are fed, in part, by drainage from vast watersheds, some that stretch far north of Route 1. Where salt and fresh waters meet, they provide nurseries for the tiny bait fish that fuel bass and bluefish, as well as feeding grounds for the great blue heron, terns and other migratory birds.

They exist in many Rhode Islanders’ minds for good times spent sailing, clamming and fishing.

Foster Cove is part of Ninigret Pond, the state’s largest salt pond, stretching almost fully across Charlestown’s southern shore. It is bordered by the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge on one side and a neighborhood of million-dollar homes on the other.

The other salt ponds are Card, Trustom, Green Hill, Potter, Quonochontaug, Winnapaug, Maschaug, and Point Judith. Of those, Winnapaug, Green Hill and portions of Ninigret and Point Judith are most threatened by lawn chemicals, septic runoff and a lack of flushing by the ocean, according to testing by the Salt Ponds Coalition. Green Hill has been off-limits to shellfishing since 1994 because of high bacteria counts.

The Salt Pond Watchers began detecting contaminants in the state’s salt ponds in the mid-’80s, when the citizens group launched the country’s first volunteer water-monitoring effort. It has since been absorbed by the nonprofit Salt Ponds Coalition, and today it dispatches dozens of members biweekly to 40 testing stations from Westerly to Narragansett.

The coalition, now 400 strong, issues water-quality reports and champions the ponds’ protection.

“We’ve come to realize there is more here than we can do by ourselves,” says Mark Bullinger, the coalition’s executive director.

SAVE THE BAY, a force for the conservation of Narragansett Bay, is heeding that call for assistance. The organization has opened an office in the McCormick building, overlooking the Pawcatuck River in downtown Westerly, and plans to lend the coalition a greater lobbying presence, in addition to legal and advocacy expertise.

Save the Bay is broadening its focus to Little Narragansett Bay, off Westerly, and the salt ponds along the south coast through a grant from the Latt8ner Family Foundation. The group has hired David Prescott as bay keeper, an advocate for the South County coast, and plans to make itself a permanent presence.

“If Narragansett Bay is the heart of Rhode Island, the salt ponds are its vital systems, giving it life,” says John Torgan, Save the Bay’s keeper for Narragansett Bay. “They are incredibly important and severely threatened.”

The Nature Conservancy, whose mission is to preserve ecologically important lands, is also taking aim at the ponds. With Save the Bay and the coalition’s guidance, the conservancy is embarking on its first habitat-restoration project in Ninigret and Quonochontaug Ponds.

In keeping with the organization’s focus worldwide, the conservancy is working to restore and conserve marine environments while achieving water-quality improvements through land protection.

“There are so many threats happening simultaneously,” says Caroly Shumway, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy’s Providence office. She ticks off coastal development, climate change, pollution, destructive fishing practices and invasive species.

THE RESTORATION WORK comes after months of deliberation during which The Nature Conservancy assessed the coast from Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Maine, identifying threats and developing strategies for dealing with them.

The seeding of 360,000 quahogs and planting of 20,000 shoots of eelgrass, an effort set for next spring, is a first step in Rhode Island. It is being paid for through a $63,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that The Nature Conservancy and its partners will match.

The hope is that the clams and eelgrass will filter the water and improve the ponds’ overall health, and that they themselves will survive.

Pinpointing planting sites was difficult on a recent sunny afternoon for a team from The Nature Conservancy, Save the Bay and the coalition. An algae bloom had left Ninigret Pond a murky brown, though a school of silver menhaden cut through the water near a dock. The group abandoned its effort to scout out locations that day, deciding to return with wetsuits to get a better view of the pond floor.

Still, Rhode Island’s small size makes it ideal for taking actions that will yield quantifiable results, Shumway says.

“You really do have an opportunity to make a difference here,” she says.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL advocacy group Conservation Law Foundation plans to elevate its efforts on the south coast. That group’s entry into South County was spurred in recent years by rule changes proposed by the state Coastal Resources Management Council that would have relaxed standards near the salt ponds, says Cynthia Giles, director of the foundation’s Rhode Island office.

One proposal would have spared a Charlestown condominium project that included affordable housing from abiding by new CRMC rules that require major projects in areas affecting salt ponds to have lots of at least two acres. The council killed the amendment last month after concerns were raised by the community and at the recommendations of the staff.

“My view is, CRMC has not been doing a good job of protecting the ponds,” Giles says. “A much more active and aggressive voice needs to be heard down there.”

The proposals were reviewed under CRMC’s rulemaking process, which is intended “to encourage and welcome public comment and to keep an open dialogue,” explained Laura Ricketson-Dwyer, agency spokes8woman. “Our [coastal area management plans] are dynamic, living documents. We are always striving to improve upon them, update them and make them stronger.”

She said the CRMC had been receptive to concerns raised by the Conservation Law Foundation and Save the Bay.

Blame for the ponds’ degradation can’t be placed solely on the CRMC, Ricketson-Dwyer said. The decline in water quality, she said, can be attributed to local zoning decisions that allowed the development of numerous small lots near the coast and other practices that predate the agency’s inception in 1971.

Because wastes are transported through the soil and groundwater from houses built on those lots, she said, “unfortunately we would continue to see degradation of water quality in the ponds even if the state and the towns prohibited all further development and human activity on the salt ponds.”

She added: “The CRMC has always felt strongly about the protection of the salt ponds but the matter requires further scrutiny, not simply placing blame.”

SAVE THE BAY is more sparing in its assessment of the state’s role than is the Conservation Law Foundation. The state has not effectively managed growth, Torgan says, but the environmental community also has not done its share. The state of the ponds is the result of “benign neglect,” he says.

It’s difficult to rally people around the issue because the problems can’t be linked to a single source, he says. They are the result of many factors, ranging from stormwater runoff and lawn fertilizer to failing septic systems to goose and pet droppings that pollute the waters.

“The new emerging threat is much more insidious,” he says. “It’s the cumulative effect of development along the coast and in the watershed.”

People often do not associate the decisions they make on their property as far north as Hopkinton with the health of the ponds, he says. “It’s a much more difficult nut to crack from an environmental standpoint.”

THE STATE HAS taken steps, as have the towns. The General Assembly last session passed a law, sponsored by Rep. Donna M. Walsh, D-Charlestown, requiring the replacement of cesspools with modern, individual septic systems or sewer tie-ins on properties near critical water sources and all properties being sold.

Septic tanks are on-site disposal systems that remove the solids from household waste before releasing treated fluids into the earth. Their predecessors, cesspools, are chambers or pits where household wastewater and sewage is collected before the liquids are disposed into the soil.

South Kingstown and Charlestown enacted ordinances requiring homeowners to inspect and maintain their individual sewage-disposal systems. Narragansett requires that all septic systems be pumped out every four years.

The coalition and its partners recognize they will need to enlist community support for what promise to be costly solutions.

A recent study of Green Hill and eastern Ninigret Ponds done for the state by a consulting company called for solutions such as requiring that all septic systems in watersheds be upgraded to meet current regulations, at an estimated $10,000 to $20,000 per household. If those systems were upgraded with the latest nutrient- reducing technology, those costs would rise to $20,000 to $30,000. Another option was building community septic systems that could be carefully monitored for given neighborhoods for $25,000 to $35,000 per property.

South Kingstown is also exploring requiring homes to connect to the municipal sewers. It is not clear who would pay for those options.

“It’s an investment,” Torgan says. “It does cost money. It’s going to be tough.”

Save the Bay hopes to push for a state water-quality bond, he said.

ANOTHER FOCAL POINT is the breachways, built about five decades ago, that have allowed tides to bring sand into the salt ponds. That, in turn, has buried eelgrass beds and choked out other sea life.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the CRMC in 2004 launched a $4.1- million project to dredge Ninigret Pond, plant acres of eelgrass beds and restore a fish run at Cross Mills, on the pond’s north shore. Months after the project began, the corps announced that it might not have the money to complete the job.

With lobbying from U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the project got back on track. Dredging of the western portion of the pond was completed last spring, and workers are slated to begin dredging 17 acres in the eastern part of the pond Nov. 1.

Eelgrass planting on the western end proved so successful last year that the plants began seeding themselves, said Chris Hatfield, project manager.

But Hatfield noted that the state already needs to clear a sediment basin in Charlestown Breachway that the corps dug three years ago.

“The sand needs to be cleaned out, or it will kill the eelgrass,” he said.

Plans will be drawn up this year for dredging and restoration in Winnapaug Pond, but that work will be contingent upon securing funding, Hatfield said.

Save the Bay has also joined the Army Corps for discussions about dredging to improve navigation in Little Narragansett Bay. The organization is urging the corps to pair that work with beach replenishment and restoration plans.

In the meantime, the environmental groups are preparing for a long haul ahead in gaining widespread community support, financial and otherwise. Each aims to add its own dimension to the cause.

“More eyes and more hands,” says Giles, of the Conservation Law Foundation, “are going to get a better result for us in the long run.”

kmulvane@projo.com / (401) 277-7417

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The Providence Journal / Bill Murphy

Jarrett Savarese, of Naugatuck, Conn., fishes for striped bass along the Charlestown Breachway in Charlestown. The breachways have allowed sand to build up in coastal salt ponds, smothering the eelgrass that shelters young fish and scallops.

Boats crowd Lavin’s Landing Marina in Charlestown. Pollution, including discharge from boats, houses, lawns and wildlife, has diminished fishing and water quality in the salt ponds.

Lavin’s Landing Marina, on the north shore of Ninigret Pond, in Charlestown. Ninigret is the state’s largest salt pond, spanning nearly the entire southern shore of Charlestown. Portions of Ninigret and Point Judith ponds, along with all of Winnapaug and Green Hill ponds, are most threatened by lawn chemicals, septic runoff and a lack of flushing by the ocean, according to testing by the Salt Ponds Coalition.

A sign shows where shellfishing is permitted at Lavin’s Landing Marina in Charlestown.

Oysters and quahogs that once flourished at Foster Cove in Charlestown’s Ninigret Pond are scarce. “When the houses went up, the oysters went away,” says resident Del Barber.

Pat Esposito, left, and his wife, Patty Esposito, of Portland, Conn., camp out at the Charlestown Breachway in Charlestown.

(c) 2007 Providence Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.