Climate change is only part of the story
The unfortunate squelching of the October 23 participation of three EPA scientists who were to report on aspects of the state of Narragansett Bay – largely for other scientists, managers, and policymakers – made national headlines. This opportunity-denied to report EPA-funded and EPA-sanctioned research overshadowed the initial and important findings.
The workshop to which scientists were invited was an important part of a broad peer-review process for a detailed study by the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program of Narragansett Bay and its watershed. Lessons learned from the study are broadly applicable and provide an opportunity for better management, protection, and restoration of coastal ecosystems generally.
A key report finding for Rhode Island and Massachusetts, is that the bay water is cleaner, which means healthier swimming and improved fish habitat. Over the past several decades, research and monitoring conditions have steered action plans that dramatically improved the bay and watershed. Investments in wastewater treatment facilities and restrictions on harmful chemicals have created a dramatic drop in pollution.
Harmful chemicals for example most heavy metals (mercury is a notable exception) and several dangerous chlorinated organic compounds used by industry or as pesticides have been reduced to levels unlikely to have negative biological effects. There has also been a 55 percent decrease in total nitrogen from wastewater treatment facilities in the watershed and a 45 percent decrease in total phosphorus. The Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District in Worcester, Massachusetts, reduced its nitrogen loading by 80 percent and phosphorus loading by 87 percent, the highest percent reductions of the 37 wastewater facilities in the region.
Excessive amounts of nutrients can harm aquatic life by stimulating algal growth, which leads to low levels of dissolved oxygen as the algae die and decompose. Low dissolved oxygen has been a major reason for fish movement out of the area and fish kills in the bay.
Additional investments in reducing overflows of raw sewage in the bay are paying off. Since 2010 the rate of water quality recovery has increased rapidly, enhancing the shellfishing industry. In 2017 an additional 3,711 acres in Rhode Island were converted from “conditionally approved to open for shellfishing” to being “open without restrictions.” Other economic benefits include enhanced tourism, real estate values, and commerce as a cleaner bay and watershed supports a better quality of life for those that live, work and vacation here.
However, the report highlights the need to do more to combat the effects of climate change, which the data show are accelerating at a faster pace, and the impacts of which are likely to undo the hard won improvements mentioned above. From 1960 to 2015, bay water temperature increased approximately 3 degrees F and air temperature projections out to 2100 could result in an additional 5 to 10 degrees F. Additionally, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration projects that sea level could rise as much as nine to eleven feet at Newport by 2100.
Along Narragansett Bay and our southern coastal shores 3,765 buildings, seventeen square miles of land, and the homes of over 10,000 people would be inundated if the sea rises seven feet. The lower Taunton River basin is especially vulnerable due to its shallow slopes.
Much of our existing salt marshes will be lost under accelerated sea level rise, affecting fish, birds, and wildlife.
We also see warm water fish moving into the bay in greater abundance than ever before. Scup, black sea bass, and summer flounder are all warm-water fish that are now plentiful in the bay. However, cold-water fish like winter flounder, red hake, and, in recent years, lobsters are leaving the bay for cooler environments.
The way forward is to invest in research, monitoring, and infrastructure to adapt to the effects of climate change. If we do not, our quality of life, and the social and economic vitality of the cities and towns in Narragansett Bay and watershed areas, are at risk.
The investments are necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change documented through years of research. These include air and water temperature increases, sea level rise, more powerful storms, rainfall that is increasing and snowfall that is declining. These changes affect the bay and the watershed, including the Blackstone River, Taunton River, and Pawtuxet River basins.
The State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed Report combines key findings of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program and over 50 research partners in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. While most of the bay is in Rhode Island, 60 percent of the watershed lies within Massachusetts.
The call for funding to do more research and monitoring is important. We need to understand the changes occurring in the bay and watershed to enable well-informed adaptation and mitigation planning.
We must take aggressive and swift actions on the reduction of greenhouse gases and the implementation of local adaptation strategies necessary if we hope to avoid catastrophic outcomes.
A copy of the Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed Report can be found at www.nbep.org.
Judith Swift is Chair of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program’s Steering Committee and Director of the Coastal Institute of Rhode Island and Professor of Communication Studies and Theater, University of Rhode Island. John W. King, PhD is Chair of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program’s Science Advisory Committee and Professor of Oceanography, Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island.