The State of Narragansett Bay and its Watershed
We’ve been asked: Isn’t the Bay saved already? The answer isn’t so cut-and-dry. In fact, the Bay is so much cleaner than it once was. And, it’s not as clean as it could, or should, be. What’s more, while many former threats, such as industrial factory waste, have been remedied, new and more complex threats are emerging. Skeptics may ask: how do we know?
Beginning in 2014, the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program brought together more than 50 environmental practitioners from universities, state and federal agencies, nonprofit and for-profit organizations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island to collaboratively produce the 2017 State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed report. This robust and well-rounded collective of experts gathered and analyzed the best available data and put together a comprehensive, 500-page technical report on the status and trends in 24 topic areas that describe the conditions of the Bay and watershed and the stressors that threaten them.
The findings in the 2017 State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed report offer a new and unique understanding of the changing conditions in this important region. The incredible value of the report is that agencies, organizations, and individuals can use this information in their decision-making to ensure that the benefits provided by the Bay and watershed are sustained and enhanced for future generations.
The Good News
The water in the Bay is getting cleaner. Over the past several decades, major investments in wastewater facilities and restrictions on harmful chemicals have paid off in a dramatic drop in pollution. Discharges of bacteria, often from human and animal waste, excessive nutrients that lead to insufficient oxygen for marine life, and such legacy toxic pollutants as metals, PCBs, and pesticides have declined.
Scientists are tracking changes in the ecosystem after recent reductions in pollution from wastewater treatment facilities. Scientists are looking at biology, chemistry, and physics to understand how nutrient reductions are impacting our ecosystem. Additionally, research is looking at the cause of lower dissolved oxygen concentrations and how the fish populations are changing.
Conditions vary greatly among places in the Bay and watershed, generally improving with distance from urban areas. But, urbanized areas are expanding. This spreading of the human population has spurred changes in land use, including loss of forests, that negatively affect rivers and the Bay. Conditions in the Bay also improve with distance from the Providence, Fall River and other highly urbanized areas.
Major Stressors Current Threatening Progress
Climate change shifts. Decades of scientific data show that local air and water temperatures have warmed, rainfall has increased in volume and intensity, and sea level has risen. These changes are already happening and will continue into the future. Rising temperatures and increased rainfall stresses local stormwater systems, negatively affects human health and may change the species that inhabit the Bay and freshwaters. By understanding these changes, we can make better decisions and implement better policies to help protect land, communities, and infrastructure.
Sea level rise is stressing low-lying areas— particularly developed areas where people live and work. Additionally, salt marshes are drowning in place and have little room to retreat to higher ground. Salt marshes play important roles in the ecosystem by providing shelter, nurseries, and feeding grounds for fish and shellfish and protection from storms and flooding for coastal communities. Sea level rise will bring more frequent flooding to low-lying coastal areas which could displace homes, roads and coastal habitats.
Urbanization. Population has increased over the last 20 years. People are spreading out, moving to more rural areas. Urban areas are expanding at the expense of forested lands. Demands for infrastructure such as roads, waste management, and power lines have increased, and habitat has been fragmented. More urbanized areas mean more impervious surfaces such as roads and buildings which can lead to warmer temperatures, more polluted runoff into waterways, and less natural habitat for animals.
Degradation of water quality. Significant advances in stormwater management, wastewater infrastructure, and policies aimed at reducing pollution have improved water quality significantly. However, water quality is still under threat from emerging contaminants, polluted runoff and climate change. High nutrient levels lead to low dissolved oxygen, which threatens fish and shellfish and can cause significant loss of life. Additionally, emerging contaminants such as personal care products and medications have unknown impacts on the natural ecosystem.