By RICHARD SALIT
PROVIDENCE JOURNAL STAFF WRITER
On Aug. 20, 2003, John Torgan awoke to a call about dead fish in Greenwich Bay. As Baykeeper for Save the Bay back then, he rushed to Warwick to investigate, climbing atop a sea wall overlooking Apponaug Cove.
What he saw he couldn’t believe.
“The water was pea soup green. You could not see two inches down into it,” he said. “There were belts of dead and dying 2½-inch to 3-inch menhaden. It stretched as far as you could see.”
When Torgan returns to the very same spot a decade later, he’s pleased to see water clear enough to see to the bottom and a live eel surfacing in the shallows. It’s a sharp contrast to the horrible scene that greeted him 10 years earlier.
“It was like nothing I had seen before and nothing I have seen since,” said Torgan, now the director of ocean and coastal conservation for The Nature Conservancy.
Tuesday marks the 10th anniversary of what became known as the “Greenwich Bay Fish Kill,” an infamous episode in which an estimated 1 million fish died gasping for air due to a lack of oxygen.
The massive scale of the die-off — so much greater than any previous fish kills — and the horrible stench it produced for many days — created a watershed moment in efforts to improve water quality in Narragansett Bay.
“I think it was a wake-up call,” said Tom Kutcher, who succeeded Torgan as Baykeeper. The thinking was, “We can’t wait for another fish kill. … People got moving.”
In the months after the fish kill, the governor formed study committees and ordered a report and the General Assembly took the baton by passing laws to better manage Narragansett Bay and to protect it from nutrient discharges linked to the fish kill.
But even with those improvements — some of which only recently have been completed and some of which are still being finished — concerns remain. Earlier this summer, scientists monitoring conditions in the Bay grew alarmed. Their measurement detected some of the worst low-oxygen conditions in the Bay in years.
The summer of 2003 was a perfect storm for a truly historic fish kill, according to the follow-up report.
It was particularly wet, with more than 16 inches of rain falling, including a 3.75-inch deluge from Aug. 7-8. Runoff from the storms carried nutrients from human and animal waste into the Bay, providing an ample source of food for phytoplankton, microscopic plant-like organisms. Add to that warm Bay waters and lots of sunshine and conditions were ripe for algae growth.
Sure enough, phytoplankton blooms followed. Once the nutrients had been consumed, however, the phytoplankton began to starve. They died, sank and decomposed, a process that depletes oxygen on the bottom.
While winds sometimes mix water layers and replenish oxygen levels, that was not the case in August 2003. Dissolved oxygen levels rapidly reached zero, called anoxia, in the shallows of Greenwich Bay.
Meanwhile, large schools of juvenile menhaden had arrived in Greenwich Bay, driven there and cornered by hungry bluefish.
“That was it for them,” said Christopher Deacutis, a water resources specialist for the DEM who wrote the Fish Kill report.
By Aug. 20, menhaden were trapped with no air to breathe and quickly began dying. Some crabs, shrimp and eel perished, too.
The DEM report noted that low oxygen conditions existed all the way to the Jamestown and Newport Bridges.
Prior to the fish kill, said Torgan, he and his colleagues sounded the alarm about unprecedented numbers of juvenile soft-shell clams dying.
“It took fish to get people to pay attention,” he said.
While Deacutis and his colleagues were taken aback by the scale of the fish kill, they weren’t surprised by the conditions that caused it. They had been studying low oxygen in the Bay for years.
In 1999, Deacutis led the formation of a group that came to be called the Insomniacs for their late-night trips onto the Bay to measure oxygen levels and record other data. It was spurred by much smaller fish kills and occasional reports of gray-colored water and hydrogen-sulfide odors.
The scientists came to believe that human sewage systems and storm-water pipes were largely to blame. But their concerns didn’t gain much traction. Their critics deemed the causes to be natural and the proposed solutions too costly.
But the DEM report on the 2003 episode pinned the blame on the long-suspected culprit: human sources of nitrogen. The biggest contributors were identified as effluent from sewage treatment plants.
With the public outraged over the fish kill, Governor Donald Carcieri created the Rhode Island Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Coordination Team to better manage the Bay and the General Assembly passed laws mandating ecosystem-based management of the Bay and a 50-percent reduction in nitrogen discharges from sewage treatment plants by 2008.
Angelo Liberti, chief of the DEM’s surface water protection program, said that his agency targeted 11 of Rhode Island’s 19 wastewater treatment plants — the ones located on the troubled waters of the upper Bay — to comply with the state’s first-ever nitrogen limits. It took several to settle appeals and negotiate new permits.
Ultimately, the larger plants were required to meet a cap of 5 milligrams of nitrogen per liter, while the smaller plants can’t exceed 8 milligrams.
By 2013, nitrogen discharges were cut by 40 percent.
“We’re getting close, but we’re not quite there yet,” Liberti said.
The Narragansett Bay Commission’s Fields Point plant, the largest in the state, had until 2014 to complete its upgrade but “it’s actually done now,” spokeswoman Jamie Samons said. “We’re getting fantastic results.”
Nitrogen has dropped from an average 15 mg of nitrogen to below 4 mg. The agency’s Bucklin Point facility in East Providence has a 2016 deadline, but other system improvements have already helped reduced nitrogen to about 7 mg.
Nitrogen removal systems are expensive, Samons said. It will cost about $110 million for the nitrogen systems at the two plants and about $1.5 million a year to operate them.
Another commission project is also having an impact on nitrogen levels, even though that was not the purpose when it began prior to the fish kill. In 2008, the agency completed construction of a 3-mile underground pipeline in Providence to capture overflows from combined sewage and storm-water pipes during heavy rains. Before, raw sewage would get flushed into the Bay and contribute to beach and shellfish bed closings due to high bacteria levels.
The completion of the pipe, and its extension northward in the coming years, will not only result in overflow getting treated for bacteria, but for nitrogen too, Samons said.
Warwick, viewed as a direct source of pollution to Greenwich Bay, also deserves credit for improvements, Liberti said. Its wastewater treatment plant has undergone improvements and efforts have been made to extend sewers into the area and to eliminate cesspools and septic systems.
“I know that Warwick has come a long way,” Liberti said, but he adds, “it continues to be an issue locally to get people to connect.”
While substantial progress is being made, it’s far too premature to declare victory, those interviewed for this article say.
There are still plenty of avenues for nitrogen to reach the Bay, including from wastewater treatments plants upstream in Massachusetts. Also, runoff still flows directly into the Bay carrying fertilizer and animal waste. And efforts to require the replacement of all cesspools in the state — not just those on the coast — have gone nowhere at the State House.
“It’s something we know how to do,” Kutcher said. “It just takes a lot of political will and money.”
There are, however, mysteries that persist about the Bay, low-oxygen conditions and fish kills. Kutcher said he has heard scientists wondering about what level of nitrogen reduction has to be reached — and how much time has to elapse — before a noticeable and consistent reduction in low-oxygen episodes is achieved.
Deacutis said there could be factors, including how Bay currents and flows from tributaries work, that play a role scientists don’t quite understand. Climate change could be another variable since warming waters hold less dissolved oxygen, he said.
“Some years are really good and some are really bad,” he said. “We’re trying to understand why.”
Monitoring and further study is vital, he said. The Insomniacs, who now go out in daylight and call themselves the Daytrippers, were fortunate to receive financing for rapid testing in 2005 that allowed them to drop from seven boats to three. They monitor nearly 70 spots about every two weeks.
Meanwhile, the Bay Assessment and Response Team, overseen by DEM, monitors a network of fixed stations that has grown to 13, each reporting data on Bay conditions every 15 minutes.
It’s these programs that detected some of the worst low-oxygen conditions in years in the Bay this summer, conditions that may have even been worse were if not for nitrogen-reduction efforts, Deacutis said.
“We think there is a decrease in the volume of water that’s going hypoxic [low oxygen],” he said, “but we have limited data.”
Deacutis is concerned that monitoring could be scaled way back due to rising budgetary pressures and people thinking that the problem is gone.
“As a scientist I get appalled at that,” he said. “What if you only measured the stock market once a month? Environmental things are as wild and crazy as economic ones.”
Looking back on the fish kill, Torgan said it may actually have been good for the Bay.
“Sometimes to get people’s attention on these issues, it takes a crisis to open that window of opportunity to change policy and the political course, to make investments and the big decisions,” he said. “It’s a real success story.”
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
Director of Oceans and Coasts