Tag Archives: Rhode Island

Rhode Island River Revival

To celebrate National Rivers Month, we asked Tim Mooney, marketing and communications manager for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island to share some good news about rivers in The Ocean State. An avid hiker and birder, he managed two of the Conservancy’s flagship nature preserves from 2007-2016 and previously served in the Washington and Providence offices of U.S. Senators John Chafee and Lincoln Chafee. He lives in Cumberland, R.I. with his partner, Chris Audette. 

Rhode Island’s environmental champion (and dear friend of the Fish and Wildlife Service), the late U.S. Senator John Chafee, was fond of saying, “Given half a chance, nature will rebound. But we must give nature that half a chance.”

For the past several years, The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter has worked with the Service to give nature half a chance on the Pawcatuck River. Winding 34 miles through southern Rhode Island, the river abounds with wildlife, from osprey to otters and herons to herring. It’s hard to beat the meandering Pawcatuck River for summertime family paddling. Scientists describe it as the last and best semi-wilderness river system in the state.

Nevertheless, the lower reaches of the river were choked by the White Rock Dam. Two miles upriver from a municipal boat ramp in downtown Westerly, R.I., the dam, a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, blocked kayakers and migrating fish.

The White Rock Dam was on the Pawcatuck River, on the border of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

Although no longer serving a commercial purpose, the 6-foot-high concrete wall diverted the river into a long bypass canal. In spring, the river rushed through the canal with tremendous force, creating dangerous conditions for inexperienced kayakers. It also prevented all but a handful of river herring from migrating upstream to their traditional spawning grounds.

In 2015, the Conservancy and the Service, supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience, came together to remove the dam and close the bypass canal. Two years later, the river is back on its natural course. Paddlers and fish are passing easily, and local flooding has been reduced. The lower Pawcatuck River has been set free for the first time in 250 years.

The dam removal in 2016 was supported in part by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

We want nature to thrive everywhere — not just “wild” places, but in our neighborhoods and historic waterfronts, too. For most of the 20th Century, the Crawford Street Bridge covered nearly ¼ mile of the Providence River in downtown Providence, R.I. Just upstream, the junction of the Woonasquatucket and Moshasseck rivers, which join to form the Providence, was hidden beneath the John O. Pastore Federal Building and Post Office.

The waterways below, which feed into Providence Harbor, were heavily polluted with industrial waste and sewage and, quite simply, stank. All of upper Narragansett Bay was horribly polluted. It was hard to imagine anyone sailing, fishing, or kayaking in those waters.

Today, thanks to an ambitious revitalization project in the 1980s, the Crawford Street Bridge is gone, replaced with a series of smaller spans, and the Woonasquatucket and Moshasseck meet in the open. Providence River is the cleanest it has been in seven generations, thanks to the vision, foresight, and hard work of many people and organizations. And public access to Providence’s natural resources is valued more than ever.

The Nature Conservancy oversaw the design and construction of the Gano Park boat ramp on the Providence waterfront. The project was supported in part by funds from the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, administered by the Service. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

In 2014, The Nature Conservancy partnered with the City of Providence and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management to open a new boat launch at Gano Park — the city’s first public ramp. Using funds from the Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, decades of illegal dumping were reversed, and the area was made safe again for people and wildlife.

The Conservancy helped design and manage the project, using innovative strategies to keep polluted storm-water run-off from entering the estuary. The ramp never would have been possible, however, without the support of the Service and countless hunters, archers, and anglers across the United States, who fund the WSFR program through taxes on sporting equipment, electric boat motors, and fuel.

A river remembers its natural, free-flowing course after 250 years. A boat ramp rises from a dumping ground as a neighborhood gateway to Narragansett Bay. Nature does rebound, just as Senator Chafee said. Across the state, Rhode Island’s waterways are bouncing back, and I hope you will celebrate nature’s resilience by exploring these special places this summer.

Chafee NWR salt marsh restoration USFWS

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Jen White

(Click on an image above to launch the photo slideshow.)

Protecting coastal resources – for the people and wildlife that depend on them – has to be a priority when you’re a state with 400 miles of coastline and one of the highest ratios of coastline-to-land in the country.

In Rhode Island, one such effort involves restoring coastal marshes.

“Having a marsh is good because it can slow down waves that would be heading toward homes,” says Jen White, a USFWS biologist in Rhode Island. “If we lose the marsh, that will all turn into open water basically and you won’t have any protection.”

White is looking out at the Narrow River estuary, where FWS and partners are working on a marsh restoration technique called “thin-layer deposition,” which has been used widely in Gulf Coast states but is just recently gaining traction in the Northeast. Last year the partners used the technique on 11 acres at Sachuest Point NWR, and now are working on 30 acres along the Narrow River at Chafee NWR.

The objective is to dredge sediment from the estuary and spray it onto the marsh, raising the elevation of the marsh enough to allow it to keep better pace with sea-level rise.

“What we’ve seen here is a switch from high-marsh grasses to low-marsh grasses, so we’re losing the high-marsh habitat in this area,” says White. “By adding material we’re hoping to bring it back to high-marsh elevation and that will hopefully allow it to last into the future.”

The partners are aiming to add six inches of elevation to the marsh, which should allow the high-marsh grass to grow through. They will also re-plant the area with about 35,000 plugs of marsh grasses in the spring.

To achieve this delicate balance of elevation, the dredging and spraying machines are equipped with computer sensors that precisely monitor the process.

“The sand will be contoured so there will be hills and valleys — the hills will be where the high marsh will grow and where water will be able to drain off the marsh so we’re not creating any impounded water anywhere,” explains White.

Marshes are widely considered valuable assets for coastal protection – they buffer wave energy and absorb water. But they also harbor an amazing diversity of species. One important creature that depends on them is the saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus).

“Saltmarsh sparrows breed in the high-marsh elevation grasses, so that’s informed the restoration planning we’re doing. Willets (Tringa semipalmata) also breed at that elevation,” says White. “Sea-level rise is going to be a big issue for the saltmarsh sparrow. As sea-level rise increases, these birds will have fewer and fewer breeding opportunities. By raising the marsh we hope to provide salt marsh nesting species habitat into the future.”

White notes that researchers (Field et al. 2016) estimate the sparrow may go extinct as early as 2035, with populations having dropped sharply since the 1990s according to the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program (SHARP), a group of academic, government and nonprofit researchers along the East Coast.

“Sea-level rise is really the main issue for marshes, whether you’re talking about the habitat they provide for the saltmarsh sparrow or their ability to protect coastal communities from inundation.”

This is the fifth in a series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In previous weeks we have looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons, combating climate change in the Chesapeake BayJulie Devers, assessing fish barriers and culverts in Maryland,  Kevin Holcomb and Amy Ferguson building living shorelines at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and Eric Schrading and Katie Conrad building living shoreline oyster reefs at Gandy’s Beach in New Jersey.

Downtown, in the park, at the refuge — discovering nature anywhere and everywhere

Michael Bonilla - FWS photoAs #LatinoConservationWeek marches on, we share a reflection on summer at the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, written by Hispanic Access Foundation intern Michael Bonilla.

As an intern with the Hispanic Access Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service I have built some strong connections to our local and state wildlife. Gratefully, through the wildlife refuge system in Rhode Island, I have come to understand that I don’t need to visit the rain forest to experience nature. So far, it has been an inspiring experience to get to work with so many scientists that are so passionate about the protection and conservation of wildlife — from wetland and salt marsh habitats to birds such as saltmarsh sparrows to piping plovers. Thus, participating in the environmental education program I get to inform and help bridge a connection between kids and their natural, wild surroundings.

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On the other hand, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership (PPUWRP). It has been an eye-opening experience, participating in environmental initiatives in the city of Providence, RI to connect urban communities with parks as natural settings. My goal with PPUWRP is to provide support and educational programming for families and to use parks and local green spaces to educate and to spark interest in the wildlife refuge.

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Whether we are in the woods away from city or in the middle of downtown, there are learning and connection opportunities that community members can build with nature. From counting oyster catchers in Sandy Point Island to carrion beetles in a park right in the city, this internship has allowed me to realize that conservation and natural experiences can take place anywhere, and that all the members of a community can conserve our local ecosystems and habitats.

For Latino Conservation Week (July 16-24), Michael will be leading a week-long summer camp called Urban Explorers where kids can discover nature in neighborhoods, parks, green spaces and backyards.