Evolving Coastlines

A look at some of the issues and solutions facing Narragansett Bay


Give or take, there are roughly 400 miles of coastline in our Ocean State. That’s a lot to enjoy, and a lot to take care of. Whether you are watching the waves crash from your Green Hill cottage or you are coming down from the city for a beach day, what happens to the Bay impacts everyone. If you are one of those people who thinks that just because you don’t live right on the water, what you do in your everyday life doesn’t impact it, think again. From fertilizing your lawn to considering alternative offshore energy sources, everything we do is interwoven into the larger fabric of the health in and around Narragansett Bay. Read on to learn about some of the environmental issues facing the Bay, and what it means to you.

Water Quality
Remember all those beach days you missed last year because they were closed due to elevated bacterial levels? Ever think, “There must be something that can be done to prevent this?” Tom Kutcher of Save the Bay has this (and other environmental issues) at the forefront of his mind. As the Narragansett Baykeeper, he is tasked with protecting the Bay and restoring water quality, habitat and ecological health to the system while working alongside government agencies.

Think of stormwater as all that rain that “cleans” the street, picking up that windshield wiper fluid you spilled on the ground or that dog poop you decided not to pick up, that then makes its way through miles of pipes and spills into Narragansett Bay. Gross, huh? All of this ends up in the Bay because of the speed at which the rainwater hits the ground and rockets through these hard, impervious surfaces (i.e. parking lots, driveways, rooftops, streets and sidewalks). Slowing down this water so it can soak into the ground, or catching and treating it is key to reducing stormwater runoff.

There have been numerous action steps taken to reduce this runoff from entering the Bay. This includes updating the Fields Point Wastewater Treatment Facility (WWTF), which is run by the Narragansett Bay Commission. “Stormwater is the second largest input of nutrients and bacteria after WWTFs. The Fields Point WWTF was the first facility to deal with urban sewers, which had previously directly entered the Bay untreated. These sewers combined sewage and runoff from street drains,” explains Tom. “[It] remains the largest and most influential WWTF on the Bay. Recent upgrades, including a massive storage tunnel and nutrient treatments, have greatly reduced both septic and runoff pollutants from entering the Bay.”

That “massive strorage tunnel” is the product of Phase 1 of the Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) Project by the Narragansett Bay Commission. The CSO addresses a majority of the stormwater runoff and sewage overflow by directing it into a 3.1-mile long by 26-foot wide tunnel that is approximately 300 feet below the city of Providence. Excess stormwater and sewage are held there until it can be properly treated at Fields Point WWTF.

According to Jody King, who has been a shellfisherman for over 20 years, the Bay
is getting much cleaner. “Now that Phase 1 of the CSO has been completed, there’s less effluent coming into the Bay. We don’t have the closures that we used to have in the Bay. Every time it rained a 1⁄2 inch, we would have huge closures. Now that we have those CSO’s in place, we don’t have those destructive rain events nearly as often,” says Jody.

Save the Bay is continuing to approach stormwater runoff from multiple fronts now that the larger source is being addressed. “Runoff from your town or city directly pollutes the water in your neighborhood and at your closest bathing beach. It can be responsible for intermittent or permanent shellfish closures and beach closures, and it can make you sick,” Tom continues.

So how can you, the average citizen, take action steps to reduce your impact on stormwater runoff? Save the Bay has created a guide that show you how to landscape your property to retain water (by creating a rain garden) and reduce fertilizer runoff (by creating a sustainable lawn and garden) Check it out HERE.

“We can all have positive impacts [on the Bay] by reducing impervious surfaces on our own properties, installing rain gardens, cleaning up after our pets, reducing or abstaining from chemical lawn fertilizer use and keeping our cars tuned up and leak-free, “says Tom. When we all do our part, our Bay will continue to be cleaner and healthier.

Now that you have some idea of what’s happening to the water in the Bay, let’s talk about the challenges our coastlines face, specifically, erosion. I spoke with Dave Prescott, the South County Coastkeeper for Save the Bay, who works directly on the water and serves as the eyes and ears of the coast.

“Climate change impacts, such as higher sea levels and more frequent and intense storms, are a serious threat to our way of life here in RI. However, sea level rise is not causing shoreline erosion; it just allows those storms to have more of an impact further inland. Sea levels in RI have risen more than ten inches in less than a century, so the impacts that we are seeing now to coastal habitats (such as salt marshes and dunes) as well as infrastructure (roads, septic systems, etc.) are getting more severe,” Dave explains. “Save The Bay is interested in coastal erosion for a number of reasons. Coastal erosion is impacting public access along the shore (specifically lateral access along the shoreline), causing more water quality impairments due to the increase in the amount of infrastructure being impacted and negatively impacting our coastal habitats by not allowing them to migrate landward due to sea walls, revetments and structures.”

The proposed sea wall in Matunuck near the Ocean Mist (pictured below) is an example of one of these structures. “The plan to build a 202-foot sheetpile wall along a section to the west of the Ocean Mist along Matunuck Beach Road is an expensive, short-term measure that may protect the road and utilities now but ultimately has the potential to put adjacent coastal areas and properties at risk. There are cases all over the world that show that hard-walled structures along the shoreline ultimately do not work and cause more damage to adjacent structures and beaches... While the 202-foot wall has been approved by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), we argued at the time that the state (and local communities) cannot and should not look at shoreline erosion issues on a case-by-case basis and should instead come up with a more integrated and long-term way to address this ongoing problem.”

From the point of view of the CRMC, Laura Dwyer, the Public Educator and Information Coordinator, weighs in. “The application from the Town of South Kingstown to construct a wall in Matunuck is now the subject of litigation, but it is not a ‘for or against’ issue for the CRMC, as the authority tasked with managing the coastline. There were many interests in this matter, and intricate issues for the CRMC to consider when we approved the work the Town proposed to protect the road and water line. In theory, the CRMC prohibits structures like this in conservation waters, but when the overall public good outweighs environmental harm, our regulations allow for making compromises, provided they meet the other regulatory requirements under a special exception. It was not an easy decision.”

Kevin Finnegan, the owner of the Ocean Mist, also weighs in on the proposed sea wall. “From a business owner’s perspective, the 202-ft wall that the town of South Kingstown proposed would destroy the Ocean Mist and do little or nothing to protect the road according to engineers in open CRMC meetings,” he says. “I want to buy the existing approximately 600-foot wall to the west and improve it, just like Taylor Swift did. She took the existing sea wall and fixed it. If I owned that land, I could work with the town and the CRMC to get the right permits to repair and pay for the existing historic sea wall. It will save the Ocean Mist and the road. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. It’s better to fix a wall that’s already there than to put in a new one.”

Homeowners living on the coast also face erosion issues as their beaches decrease year after year. And according to Dave, most proactive solutions are just band-aids for the bigger issue. “You can elevate your home to several feet above base flood elevation, you can move your home back on the property itself (further inland), you can adapt to the changing conditions by utilizing soft structures along the shoreline (such as coir-coconut fiber-logs) or establishing an ongoing beach nourishment project, or you can ultimately retreat from your property and move the structure to a location away from the coast. All of these decisions are costly and just buy you time. Beaches are dynamic systems with sand and water moving in and out and back and forth - they want to move. Ultimately a hard structure does not allow the beach to move as it would naturally and eventually you will see failures of walls and structures. And the forecast for sea level rise over the next several decades only complicates the issue more. In highly vulnerable communities, this will mean eventually looking at moving homes, businesses, infrastructure and people out of harm’s way by moving them inland.”

As we go to press, the 202-foot sheetpile sea wall proposed by the CRMC has hit a snag, but still appears that construction will begin on it this fall. Back in March, the Providence County Superior Court’s Judge Steve P. Nugent overturned part of the proposal while another was upheld. The controversial proposal has been sent back to the CRMC reversing their ruling that the town had taken reasonable steps to mitigate environmental impacts. Judge Nugent did rule, however, in favor of the CRMC’s proposal that the town had “sufficiently demonstrated no reasonable alternative means, other than the proposed wall, to serve the compelling public purpose of maintaining the infrastructure of [Matunuck Beach] Road.” The saga continues, and the fate of Matunuck Beach Road still remains uncertain.

Offshore Energy
Another issue at the forefront for coastal homeowners, especially on Block Island, is Deepwater Wind’s (DWW) proposed Block Island Wind Farm (BIWF). I spoke with DWW’s CEO, Jeff Grybowski to get the latest updates on the 5-turbine 30-megawatt BIWF, which at this point, is now fully permitted at the state level, is awaiting federal approval and is on target to become the nation’s first off-shore wind farm.

“The Rhode Island state government has actively promoted the development of offshore wind. The CRMC conducted a multi-year planning process to identify the best locations in state waters for offshore energy. This plan - the Ocean Special Area Management Plan - designated a Renewable Energy Zone off the southeast coast of Block Island. This is where DWW will locate the BIWF,” he explains.

“While a small handful of individuals have opposed the project, the BIWF has enjoyed tremendous, widespread support from a wide range of groups and individuals: Block Island and Rhode Island residents, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the wider business community, labor leaders and every major state and national environmental group including Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Oceana and the National Resources Defense Council,” Jeff says.

Block Island resident Kim Gaffett weighs in on the proposed wind farm: “I can’t wait to see them just off our shore. I prefer them to container ships, oil tankers and Air Force jets, carriers and bombers. Once the DWW turbines go online, I will be proud to say that Block Island - the smallest town in the smallest state - will be leading the nation as a community powered by renewable energy.”

Jeff continues, “When complete, the BIWF will produce enough clean energy to power approximately 17,000 homes for an estimated 20 years or more. It will reduce electric rates on Block Island by an estimated 40% and connect the island to the mainland electricity grid for the first time ever. The wind farm will supply nearly all of Block Island’s energy, but because the island’s power needs are relatively small, approximately 90% of the power generated by the wind farm will be exported to the mainland power grid.”

“Offshore wind represents the East Coast’s best local, reliable and clean energy source for several important reasons,” Jeff explains. “First, the winds off of our coastline are among the strongest and steadiest for power generation in the nation. Second, offshore wind is the best energy choice for our environment. Wind power helps greatly to reduce the emission of harmful pollutants in our region. The Block Island Wind Farm will displace dirtier power sources, and reduce emissions of harmful pollutants like carbon dioxide. Third, by generating our own power locally, we will create jobs locally. Right now, 35,000 people are employed in the offshore wind business in northern Europe. Entire cities have been transformed into industrial hubs. We can do that here.”

Narragansett Bay has been here long before Rhode Island was settled, and it will continue to be here long after we pass. In the words of Jody King, “Narragansett Bay is what makes Rhode Island. It deserves to be protected, preserved and promoted.” Well, I don’t think I could have said it better myself.


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