Natural Areas of Rhode Island: Protecting Billions of Dollars of Properties from Flooding

By Janet Coit, State Director of The Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island

Providence, RI | April 05, 2010

Rhode Islanders owe a lot to the terrific response of our police, fire, and emergency management professionals during the record flooding that hit our state last week. Thanks to them and many other hands, lives were saved and some loss and damage were avoided. Our hearts go out to those who continue to be affected from the historic flood. Let’s work together to ensure that those most impacted by this flood get the help they need as soon as possible.

What may not have been obvious to many is how the State’s decades-long commitment to protecting natural areas – forests, rivers, wetlands, and coasts – kept this flood from being much worse than it might otherwise have been. The Nature Conservancy is proud to have been a part of this land and water conservation effort, working with the Department of Environmental Management, cities and towns, and other partners.

“Green infrastructure” is all around us in our salt marshes, swamps, and forested river corridors. These natural areas quietly provide millions of dollars of flood protection each year, storing waters and releasing them slowly when the floods recede. Generally, river levels during the peak of last week’s flood were higher in developed watersheds where there are fewer open spaces to absorb the rainwater. Recent studies in Georgia show that developed watersheds have a several-fold increase in runoff compared to undeveloped watersheds.

The flood control services provided by our “green infrastructure” are an incredible return on investment. For example, according to a study by the University of Vermont an acre of Rhode Island coastal wetlands provides over $2,000 of flood protection every year. Acquiring wetlands for conservation and flood control could provide a 10:1 return over a ten-year period. Our experience here, and those of other communities across the country, demonstrate that green infrastructure is often more cost-effective than ‘”hard” engineering.

But even in highly developed watersheds, where so many of us live, we can begin using strategies such as new parking lot materials and designs that increase rain infiltration to groundwater, keeping it out of our rivers. This not only helps mitigate flooding but also protects the quality of the water downstream and in Narragansett Bay.

Unfortunately, the State’s ability to continue to protect and restore our valuable “green infrastructure” is under threat. The Nature Conservancy estimates that the State’s land and water conservation funds will be exhausted within a year. Without renewing these funds, critical natural areas along our rivers and coasts may be lost to development, eliminating the natural services that they provide and endangering everyone downstream.

The time is at hand to roll up our sleeves to clean up and restore damaged areas and address immediate needs; yet, as the policy-makers look forward, the role that natural areas should be part of the plan for Rhode Island’s future. We urge the General Assembly to fund Rhode Island’s critical land and water conservation programs so that we can continue to preserve our State’s vital forests, riverways and coastlines. People sometimes think of conservation as a luxury, but it is actually a good investment in our future and the quality of life of all Rhode Islanders. None of us can stop the rain, but we can save the irreplaceable green infrastructure that benefits our state, as an important part of our efforts to avoid and mitigate damages from future storms.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at To learn about the Conservancy’s global initiatives, visit To keep up with current Conservancy news, follow @nature_press on Twitter.

Contact information

Kevin Essington
401-331-7110, ext. 24

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