Thursday, October 26, 2006

State of The Bay

This week's big news is that we finally released State of The Bay report. It ran in Monday's Providence Journal on page 1, and kudos to the projo's Metcalf reporter Michelle Lee for doing a great job on it. The full report is on, and I've reprinted the text of the projo story below. -JT

Mixed report on Bay health

11:22 AM EDT on Monday, October 23, 2006

By Michelle J. Lee, Journal Staff Writer

The waters of Narragansett Bay are cleaner, with fewer pollutants — but low oxygen levels, among other problems, have damaged several fish and shellfish populations in the last six years.
These were the findings of the second extensive study done by Save the Bay, the state’s largest environmental organization. The report will be released today.

“State of The Bay 2006-2007: An Assessment and Action Plan” evaluated 11 health indicators covering a wide variety of issues, including toxic pollutants, public access to the waterfront and the condition of bottom-dwelling creatures and marine mammals. The issues were graded on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest.

The overall grade in the report was 4.3, a slight drop from the 4.5 grade in Save the Bay’s 2000 report. However, Narragansett Bay is a complex ecosystem and it is difficult to simplify its total health, said Baykeeper John Torgan.

“Declines in living resources outpaced our work to save the Bay,” Torgan said. “We’re not aggressive enough. This report is to show what we need to do to get a 10, to get high scores for the Bay.”

The report lists several recommendations for reviving Narragansett Bay, including: creating a strong water-monitoring program, passing bonds to pay for sewage-treatment plant upgrades, crafting management policies to address overfishing, building fish runs and removing dams to help decimated fish stocks; and drafting legislation to reduce the creation of toxins such as mercury.

Narragansett Bay covers 147 square miles and runs nearly the entire length of Rhode Island. The estuary provides spawning grounds and habitats for hundreds of animal species. It also offers many boating, fishing and swimming opportunities.

Torgan said programs to restore eelgrass beds and salt marshes along the Bay have been successful. There has also been tremendous progress in reducing nitrogen and other nutrients, a major problem cited in the first report. Nitrogen and organic pollutants in wastewater and storm-water enter the Bay and fuel large growths of plankton and algae. When the plants die, they draw off oxygen in the saltwater.

The biggest threat to the Bay, according to the report, is hypoxia, or low dissolved-oxygen levels. Most marine animals depend on dissolved oxygen to breathe, and areas where low oxygen levels and unusually warm water temperatures have spread, creating “dead zones” at the bottom of the Bay.

The decline in several species of fishes and shellfish can be attributed to a combination of decreased oxygen, warmer climates, overfishing and nutrient pollution, according to the report.
The fish decline mirrors a nationwide trend with some species such as American eel and herring disappearing because of unknown circumstances, said Curt Spalding, executive director of Save the Bay.

In 2003, adverse heat and oxygen conditions led to the deaths of 1 million menhaden in Greenwich Bay and millions of steamer clams in the Providence River.
The fish and clam kill sparked political action, with Governor Carcieri and the General Assembly supporting environmental studies and new ecosystem-management plans. In 2004, a law was passed for a 50-percent reduction of nitrogen dumping from sewer treatment plants by 2008.

Financing for the new initiatives has been uneven. In 2004, there was no initial money to finance efforts but voters approved a $20.7-million bond proposed by Carcieri. Progress stalled again in 2005 and last year when the legislature made cuts to bond proposals that would have paid for water-quality monitoring programs.

Still, there have been some advances. The Governor’s Narragansett Bay and Watershed Planning Commission has a new director. The Narragansett Bay Commission, which operates the state’s two largest sewage plants, cut nitrogen discharges to 2 million gallons this summer, compared with 136 million gallons in 2003. Volunteer watershed councils have been created to watch the rivers that feed into the Bay. Greenwich Bay, the site of the big fish kill, got a new management plan. Last month, Carcieri said he would propose an $85-million bond issue for environmental projects such as cleaning coastal cesspools and upgrading sewage treatment plants.

The new Save the Bay report is intended to build on momentum. The report was timed to coincide with election season in hopes of getting policymakers to commit to the report’s recommendations, Torgan said.

The report also contains an agenda with measurable goals to improve water quality, aquatic life and connecting the public to the Bay. Suggestions include reducing greenhouse gases, creating policies to protect certain marine areas and threatened fish species, and opening new beaches and parks.

Spalding remains optimistic that Narragansett Bay will improve if there is increased financing for monitoring, a regional management plan, more restoration projects and better marine life management.

“It is hopeful,” Spalding said. “There are actions ready to happen.”

To view “State of the Bay 2006-2007: An Assessment and Action Plan,” go to

Michelle J. Lee is a fellow with the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting Institute.

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