Defining and achieving “resilience” in Narragansett Bay

Defining and achieving “resilience” in Narragansett Bay

By Mike Jarbeau, Narragansett Baykeeper

As the marshes and habitats around the Bay adapt to rising sea levels, man-made structures, like low-lying roads, pose greater and greater challenges to resistance. (Photo credit: Quincy via MyCoast)

This article originally appeared in the fall 2021 edition of Tides Magazine.

There is perhaps no better time to consider “resilience” than fresh off the heels of an active hurricane season that left the Narragansett Bay region with major flooding along its rivers and coastline. While the season offered near-misses, it gave us a profound opportunity to consider how Narragansett Bay’s ecology, infrastructure, and public access points will fare when the next hundred year storm does hit. We find ourselves asking: how resilient is Narragansett Bay in the 21st century? How do we help the Bay be more resilient in the face of rising sea levels, intensifying storms, and continued development pressures? It’s something that should be considered by lawmakers, planners, and residents on a continuing basis.


In an age of accelerated climate change, “resilience” is a commonly used term. At Save The Bay, we use it to describe Narragansett Bay’s ability to adapt to and recover from changing conditions, while still maintaining a healthy ecosystem. In other words, the more resilient the Bay is, the better chance its coastline, habitats and watershed have to adapt. The changes, in this context, could be natural ones or could be caused by human activity, over either a short or long period of time. The good news is that, for the Bay, a certain degree of change is the norm. 

The Bay that we know today is a product of the last glaciation period, which carved out the Bay’s passages around 18,000 years ago. The retreating glaciers left behind a freshwater “Lake Narragansett” until rising sea levels eventually allowed for seawater intrusion. In this case, the Bay adapted from a freshwater environment to the estuary we know today over thousands of years. 

Today, we continue to see evidence of the Bay’s ability to change all around us. During the past several decades, warming waters have promoted an abundance of black sea bass and scup in the Bay, while the lobster and winter flounder that depend on cooler waters are increasingly scarce. And native plant species along the shoreline are migrating to higher ground in response to sea level rise.

Coastal ecosystems are extremely dynamic, and shorelines have a level of natural resilience because of their ability to move, adapt and recover from environmental challenges. Sometimes this means that, rather than return to a previous state, a resilient ecosystem might move to a new state more favorable for its survival.

Low-lying marshes, like the one shown here in Westerly, are vulnerable to climate-change related flooding. (Photo credit: Harold Hanka)


Salt marshes are an excellent example of this. Salt marshes provide habitat to many important species, while minimizing erosion, storm surge and flooding impacts; they also rely on the process of flooding and draining caused by tides. In a healthy ecosystem, the marsh is able to adapt to minor changes in water levels, and can even “move” to a new site with more ideal conditions by using a build-up of sediments and decaying vegetation to guide the way. 

A resilient Bay is one we can continue to work with and enjoy in the years to come. A natural shoreline may move, but it will afford us the ability to use and enjoy it. A resilient Bay is one that can be enjoyed by all and from which resources abound. But, under today’s pressures and changes, resilience is harder to maintain than it ever has been in the past.


Hardening the shoreline with with structures like seawalls exacerbate erosion and habitat loss, often resulting in a complete loss of sandy beach, like here in Matunuck.

Unfortunately, the Bay can only adapt to and recover from so many changes. When the changes come too quickly, or too severely, the ecology can’t keep up. In Narragansett Bay, even salt marshes are having trouble matching pace with rapid climate change impacts. Rather than occasionally being submerged in water, in keeping with the rhythm of the tides, they are constantly underwater and drowning in place. Sea levels are rising more quickly than the salt marshes can move inland to higher ground. To make matters worse for our salt marshes, man-made structures like sea walls and roads sometimes block the path the salt marshes are trying to follow, posing yet another obstacle to the marshes’ ability to evolve.

Human development frequently challenges the Bay’s resilience. Buildings, infrastructure, roads, walls, and other structures inhibit shoreline migration and other natural processes. When left in a natural state, beaches, marshes, and other coastal features adapt and adjust to effects of wave action, wind, and storms. This is resilience at work. But, when we unnecessarily or extensively “harden” the shoreline—by constructing seawalls or revetments, for example—we inhibit the natural flow of water and the shore’s migration. These structures reflect and amplify wave energy, which accelerates erosion, and can reduce or eliminate public access altogether. Many popular beaches, boat ramps, and recreation areas are shrinking or under threat due to these factors. While these hardened shorelines may provide short-term protection for certain properties, they reduce overall resilience—and the evidence can be observed all around Narragansett Bay, where properties without walls tend to have wider beaches than properties with them. 


In the last hundred years, sea level has risen approximately one foot and water temperatures have increased 3° F in Narragansett Bay. These rates of change have accelerated and are projected to increase even more in the coming decades. So, how do we help Narragansett Bay stay resilient in the face of climate change and development? At Save The Bay, the answer is three-fold: we plan, we adapt and, though it’s hard to accept, we prepare to retreat. 

Plan for the future.

Federal, state, and local agencies must incorporate climate change into their short- and long-term plans. At Save The Bay, we advocate for Bay-friendly legislation and regulations, including those that provide funding and resources to projects that help the watershed build resiliency. This year, the establishment of the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience (OSCAR) Fund—following years of Save The Bay advocacy—was a big step in the right direction, as it made ecological resilience as a policy priority for Rhode Island and set up a framework for municipalities to finance resilience related projects.

Evidence of an adapting Bay can be found by observing the changing list of species that inhabit it; winter flounder, for example, are less common than they used to be.

While the Rhode Island General Assembly made OSCAR state policy, it did not commit state dollars or identify a stable revenue stream for the fund. This means Rhode Island will miss out on an opportunity to leverage the millions of dollars available in federal matching funds for adaptation and resilience projects. Save The Bay’s policy team will continue to push for funds in the 2022 legislative session. 

Even with new policies and legislation, addressing the Bay’s resilience is a task that will extend well into the future. We know that we have a responsibility to future generations to give them the tools, information and inspiration they need to become effective Bay stewards. That’s why Save The Bay’s education team educates thousands of students each year through first-hand, experiential lessons directly along the Bay’s shorelines and on its waters.

Help habitats adapt.

Climate change is accelerating the pace at which actions need to be taken to protect Narragansett Bay. Save The Bay is working to help the habitats across the Bay and watershed adapt. We’re elevating salt marshes in Quonochontaug and Ninigret Ponds to keep pace with sea level rise, and joining forces with community partners—like the Warren Land Trust—to secure lands for marsh migration along Bay and river shorelines, like the Palmer River. We are supporting dam removal along the Kickemuit, Runnins, and Pawcatuck Rivers, so that the rivers can flow freely, lessening flooding in nearby communities.

Prepare for retreat.

Our efforts to elevate salt marshes by adding a very thin layer of sediment and replanting with marsh grasses – like we’ve done at Quonochontaug – helps these important habitats adapt to rising sea levels.

Homes, businesses, and infrastructure will need to be pulled back from the coast. Look at any Bayside community—from Charlestown to Portsmouth to Warwick—and you’ll see that flooding has become more frequent and more severe. And it’s projected to get worse. In many locations, the only realistic adaptation option is to pull back from the shore. Save The Bay has helped communities like Barrington, North Kingstown, and Warwick complete many projects involving the removal of pavement or installation of buffers that help shorelines migrate and survive. But larger, more expensive retreat decisions lie ahead. 

Securing Narragansett Bay’s resilience is a complex challenge that demands the attention and cooperation of the entire Bay community. As we plan, adapt, and prepare to retreat, many of our most difficult questions remain unanswered: How will our major port facilities cope with rising seas? What is to be done where rising seas are pushing saltwater inland and disrupting septic systems and drinking water supplies? Where will we relocate the wastewater treatment plants that become inundated? Who will pay for the movement, demolition, and cleanup of coastal properties before or after they are no longer viable? 

Save The Bay has been, and will continue, challenging policy makers to address these questions and other long-term challenges. The sooner they do, the better the chances that Narragansett Bay and our coastal environment will adapt and remain healthy so generations to come will reap the benefits of a resilient, productive ecosystem that provides sustenance and enjoyment for us all.