Narragansett Bay is recovering rapidly, but climate change poses new threats. What can we as Rhode Islanders do about it?
Narragansett Bay and its rivers are cleaner than they’ve been in generations. And now this story has made national news, thanks to EPA’s ill-considered decision to prohibit its scientists from presenting at a recent conference on the State of Narragansett Bay and its Watershed.
Rhode Islanders should be proud of what we have accomplished together. This is a rare and wholly positive Rhode Island success story that can inspire other coastal cities and states. Investments in wastewater treatment and capacity, which reduced nutrient pollution by more than 50% and captures sewer overflows, cleared the way for revitalization of the Providence and East Providence waterfronts. Fish, birds, and shellfish are back and people are enjoying the water. For the first time in modern history, all major stakeholders agree on this progress, although all also agree there remains much more to do.
These infrastructure investments were based on science and backed by rigorous enforcement of the Clean Water Act and strong state environmental regulations. They were undertaken with a shared understanding that it is in the interest of all Rhode Islanders to protect our waters and the surrounding lands for the benefit of people and nature alike. Our economy, our heritage, and our identity are so closely linked to the coast, and any investment in the environment builds our economy.
Another key finding of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program’s recent report is that these improvements are now at risk from the manifestations of climate change: warming waters, coastal erosion, flooding and inundation, loss of marshes and wetlands, a changing assemblage and distribution of fish and marine species, higher tides, more precipitation, acidification, and other changes that threaten our hard-won progress.
What should we do and what can anyone do about climate change and its impacts on Rhode Island? The report offers some direction on that, too. The Nature Conservancy and our partners are fighting climate change on two fronts: mitigation and resilience. The mitigation side includes everything to do with reducing emissions: support for regional agreements like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), partnership with neighboring states and energy producers, modernizing the electric grid, transitioning to renewable energy and weaning off our dependence on fossil fuels.
Resilience includes everything we do to inoculate our coast and cities against threats from storms, sea level rise, and the other environmental and public health effects of warming. This includes nature-based coastal erosion control strategies like living shorelines and rebuilding our marshes with fine layers of sediment. It includes conserving coastal lands to give marshes and wetlands space to migrate as sea level rises. And it includes rain gardens, urban forestry, and efforts to de-pave cities and allow polluted runoff to be filtered through vegetated green space before entering tidal waters.
Rhode Island is well-positioned to lead in both these areas and we are already doing it. RI is a key partner in RGGI, a coalition of 12 states that agree to reduce emissions. Rhode Island can proudly claim authorship of the nation’s first federally-approved ocean plan and now the first offshore wind farm, thanks to science-based planning and a collaborative public process. Working in partnership with federal agencies and our neighboring states, we are piloting nature-based resilience practices along the southern coast with a view toward increasing the scale and informing policy and practice throughout New England. If we are to preserve and extend our progress in Rhode Island’s environment, we must do all of this and more.
Finally, the State of Narragansett Bay report says we must continue the science. Long-term scientific monitoring is essential to understanding whether our investments and interventions are working. It costs a tiny fraction of the overall investments we have made, but we can’t continue to make progress without it. Scientific research, similarly, keeps us on the cutting edge of what is possible: new and less expensive ways of treating wastewater and septic wastes, better ways to save energy, reduce emissions, improve public and environmental health, and save money.
With rigorous and transparent science and thoughtful collaboration, we have brought rivers and tidal waters in Rhode Island to a better place. Inspired by this hope and guided by the same good science, we can be leaders in combating and adapting to a changing climate as well.
John Torgan is the Rhode Island State Director of The Nature Conservancy and a member of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program Management Board