Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective

As part of its 20th anniversary celebration, Rhode Island Sea Grant is reprinting Stuart Hale's classic book, which has long been unavailable. This reprinting and update has been accomplished with the encouragement and support of WJAR-TV and Hospital Trust National Bank.

When Stuart Hale finished this book in 1979, he sounded notes of both caution and hope. His hope was that future generations would choose not to squander the natural gifts of Narragansett Bay. But he knew the Bay too well, and had studied its problems for too many years, not to see clearly how many problems faced those who wanted to preserve it.

If Hale were alive today, a decade later, would he be cheered or dismayed by the events of the past 10 years? Although we cannot know for sure, the reprinting of this book, the only one of its kind for a general audience on the history and natural systems of the Bay, may prompt us to try to look at the recent history of the Bay through his eyes, and to make an educated guess.

It is not too soon for such a second look: the process of understanding the Bay and trying to save it has not been won or lost in the past decade, and it will not be won or lost in the next. But like a slowly developing photographic print, outlines and contours that may have been only shadows 10 years ago are very quickly coming into relief.

Since 1979, Rhode Island has undergone an economic renaissance and an accompanying transformation of public attitudes about its principal natural resource. Neighboring Connecticut has only two public beaches on its coastline, and the major estuary in nearby Massachusetts is one of the most polluted in the country, so it is easy to see why Narragansett Bay, which Rhode Islanders have taken for granted for years, has become an aesthetic and recreational attraction.

Rhode Island is already the nation's second most densely populated state. If you believe demographers, who predict that by the year 2000, 75 percent of the American population will live within 50 miles of the coast, then in the next decade Rhode Island will witness a massive migration to its shores.

Although this prospect delights some businessmen, developers, and realtors, it alarms those who anticipate the strain that will be placed on public services, on open space, and on the ecosystems of the biggest open space of all, Narragansett Bay.

Is the Bay healthier than it was 10 years ago, healthy enough to withstand the pressure that the next 10 years of development will place upon it? It is a simple question, but the answer is as complex as the Bay itself.

In the struggle against pollution, the most important advance occurred in 1982, when the responsibility for managing Providence's wastewater system was transferred to a new state agency. Its name was symbolic: the Narragansett Bay Commission, a visible reminder to the voters who had approved an $88-million bond issue that the administration of this crucial facility was in public hands, and that the ultimate beneficiary o improved wastewater treatment was the Bay itself. Since then, there has been some notable progress.

One encouraging sign is that levels of dissolved oxygen in the upper waters o: the Bay, an important indicator of its ability to support life, have shown a marked in crease in the last few years, in some areas approaching pre-World War I levels.

There are also some positive signs that toxic metals like cadmium, chromium, copper, mercury, and lead are reaching the Bay in smaller quantities than before, thanks to wastewater pretreatment at industrial sources and the use of unleaded gasoline. The Department of Environmental Management recently reported that coliform bacteria in the upper Bay have decreased significantly during the past 10 years, at least during dry periods.

There are, however, some troubling developments. Precancerous lesions have been discovered on some winter flounder. The most numerous bottom-dwelling fish in the Bay, especially in the area around Warwick Neck. And among quahog populations, researchers have found "hot spots," areas where the shellfish contain high concentrations of copper and lead. This suggests that simply cleaning up the municipal sewage problem in the upper Bay may not be enough to restore these polluted beds to a healthy condition.

Elsewhere in the Bay, the quahog fishery is thriving. During the past five years, over 3,000 acres of the Bay have been newly opened for shellfishing. Rhode Island harvests now account for 25 percent of all the quahogs caught in the United States, and recently over three and a half million pounds of quahog meat were brought into the docks in one year, with a value of $15.7 million.

Even more impressive than statistics is what some observers see as a vital new spirit of cooperation between resource managers and quahoggers, two traditionally independent groups of individuals. Now, quahoggers participate in decisions about management programs as members of state and regional fisheries councils. The results are more industry compliance with regulations and more involvement in efforts to improve the fishery,

A recent decline in the population of winter flounder, the second most important food species in the Bay, represents to some scientists a natural cyclical variation; others worry that the pressure of commercial and sport fishing has taken us to the upper limits of exploitation, Predicting the future abundance of the fish and shellfish populations of the Bay is still a risky enterprise.

We know a great deal more about some of the basic ecosystems of the Bay than we did 10 years ago, but it still has the capacity to surprise us. In the summer of 1985, for example, a bloom of microscopic algae created a "brown tide" that spread alarmingly throughout the Bay, upsetting many of its natural systems. Scientists identified the organism, but not what triggered its appearance, nor why it disappeared two months later as suddenly as it had appeared. In its wake was a sense of disquiet that what we thought was our familiar Bay could be the scene of such dramatic and mysterious flux.

On balance, although data are still sketchy, many observers think that Narragansett Bay is one of the few estuaries in the country that is slowly improving. And as the Bay is cleaned up, its value changes as the exploitation of its natural resources gives way to recreational and aesthetic uses.

The number of potential investors in a waterfront lifestyle is increasing. But what effect will real estate development have on the lobstermen and fishermen who depend on the Bay for a living? In some areas, like Newport, their quarters on the waterfront have become unwelcome neighbors to fashionable development, or have risen so astronomically in value that their owners are forced to sell. As clam shacks are replaced by sushi bars, some historians see the loss of an important human resource. The Newport Historical Society has recently collected the oral histories of the town's fishermen, before they disappear entirely. As valuable as the project is, some say it points disquietingly to the day when visitors to Newport will have to be pointed toward a museum to see a fisherman. In general, planners are concerned we are in danger of replacing a lively, integrated mix of waterfront activities with development that depends on a single use.

Guaranteed public access to the water is an issue that has become increasingly important to Rhode Islanders. One problem is how to manage the access sites that already exist. There are thought to be between 400 and 600 of these points of entry, but as anyone knows who has tried to find some of the more obscure ones, the process can be a frustrating trek through weedy lots, junkyards, and the driveways of irate homeowners. Rhode Island Sea Grant will soon publish a comprehensive list of all access points of record as a start toward better public understanding of what common rights already exist.

Even stickier are those sites that have fallen into disuse, or dropped from memory, or whose history is a legal thicket that only lawyers can penetrate. In Newport, for example, nobody believed 10 years ago that there were any public rights-of-way to the water. Today, as the state's oldest working waterfront is quickly being filled in by new development, local groups have sprung up to research and defend the public's points of access. For the fact is that the places from which the public can reach and enjoy the Bay are coming under terrific pressure, not only from private developers, but from the public itself.

Recreational boaters are by far the largest group of Bay users. There are an estimated 40-50,000 private craft on the Bay, with one-third of these coming from out of state. But as their number increases, there are fewer ramps, piers, and moorings to accommodate them. The typical marina is sold every three to five years, and recently, more and more of them are being converted to dockominiums. As the waterfront becomes more private, the traditional boater is shut out of the market, and out of the water. Even more detrimental than reducing the total inventory of slips, some planners feel, this process trades away the potential for public access at these finite, waterdependent sites.

Another continuing problem is the gradual siltation of the state's harbors. Dredging is the obvious answer, but what to do with the spoils—layers of possibly contaminated sludge and silt and mud—is a dilemma as intractable now as it was 10 years ago. Every alternative, from dumping to trucking the material away, has its dangers and costs. So until a solution is found, the state's harbors and marinas are slowly disappearing, from the bottom up.

Large commercial ships still move majestically up the 40-foot-deep channel from the open ocean to Rhode Island ports, though the tankers and freighters are a less vital part of the scene than they could be, the result of years of neglect. But the managers of ports at Davisville and Providence are optimistic. They point to statistics comparing Providence to other northeastern ports, noting that it shows a healthy growth rate. Each year since 1985, over $1 billion worth of cars have been offloaded here, and in one recent year, shipping pumped $73 million into the local economy.

A recent joint study by both port commissions has just been completed, and its conclusions will shape the future of commerce in the Bay. Planners say the ports are valuable because they create jobs, and because their disappearance would sever Rhode Island from one of its oldest and proudest traditions. In important ways, the tankers and freighters toiling up the channel are signs that there is still industrial muscle here. In this view, the ships are healthy symbols of a diversified economy and proof that Providence is not on its way to becoming a bedroom community, at the whim of centers of production elsewhere.

One development of the last 10 years that Stuart Hale would certainly have applauded is the remarkable increase in citizen awareness and activism about the Bay. Much of the credit for this has to go to Save The Bay, an organization that has become the most eloquent and effective voice raised in defense of the Bay's resources. As Narragansett Bay is increasingly perceived as an invaluable national resource, Save The Bay's reputation grows. In the wake of its success, other citizen's groups have sprung up to address related issues, like statewide groundwater pollution, or the health of the Blackstone, Pawtuxet, and Narrow Rivers, whose fortunes are intimately tied to the future of the Bay. Among the dozens of victories these citizen's groups can claim, perhaps the most visible is the old Jamestown Bridge, preserved as a fishing pier by a coalition of fishermen who channeled intense local concern into action.

In Providence, the last 10 years have seen the rapid maturation of a bold plan to return the head of the Bay to the people. The Waterfront Project will literally uncover a valuable resource that had been slipping by, black and invisible, beneath acres of concrete decking. Now, the Providence River is being opened up to the sun, and the state will have a new waterfront at its historical heart. The largest urban transformation in Providence's history, the Waterfront Project was made possible by a remarkable partnership between private developers and government agencies, brokered by the Providence Foundation. It was a model of cooperation that has promise for other difficult design projects. Already, people inspired by the Waterfront Project have begun to seriously investigate other access points along the urban waterfront.

The waterfront view from Providence might improve, but some observers worry that the view from much of the Bay might someday be of a wall of condominiums, and that the fragile edge where land meets water might be scarred by a kind of visual pollution that will prove just as damaging as, and even more permanent than, physical pollution.

In the summer of 1988, however, it was visible pollution that dominated the front pages and the evening newscasts—a tide of hospital waste dotting beaches with needles and vials. Other environmental issues suddenly faded into the background. As one historian put it: What good does it do to assure access to the water if it only means the opportunity to step on a syringe? In the end, it didn't matter in what other state the debris originated. What mattered was that Rhode Islanders could see with their own eyes how the fortunes of Narragansett Bay were tied to what happens elsewhere along the coast, and it drew attention to Rhode Island's own regulations.

The governmental agencies charged with managing the Bay's resources, and regulating all of us who use it, still have their hands full, as they did 10 years ago. Their overlapping jurisdictions, in which three separate state agencies are responsible for the safety of Rhode Island water, still seem like Balkan fiefdoms to some observers. Understaffing is a problem, as is the sheer number of issues and crises the agencies must respond to, and the speed with which these crises arise. In a booming economy, developers can move like bluefish; politicians have to react like coral, building by consensus.

One happy result of this slow, determined accretion is the establishment of the Bay Island Park System, a dream in Stuart Hale's day. The Department of Environmental Management has patiently acquired nine park sites: the north and south ends of Prudence Island, Hope Island, Patience Island, Dutch Island, Fort Adams, Brenton Point, Beavertail, and Fort Wetherill. It has developed a series of recreational facilities and interpretative programs that allow visitors to discover the natural beauty and historical significance of the Bay. Three of the sites have been designated as National Estuarine Research Reserves, the first in the Northeast. Here, in a field laboratory, scientists and students will learn more about how the estuary works, and how human activity affects it.

Perhaps the brightest of the past 10 years is the Narragansett Bay Project, a complex and costly five-year program to create a blueprint of action for the future by coordinating the efforts of scientists, planners, and managers. The Bay Project's challenge is to articulate broad goals that will engage the imaginations of Rhode Islanders and provide a rallying point for political action. The Bay Project is providing a forum for the discussion of a very difficult agenda, and that, to some planners, is as important as recent legislative victories. The Environmental Trust Fund for upgrading sewage treatment plants; the Land Use Bill, which requires every Rhode Island city and town to produce a comprehensive land use plan: and the success of Open Space bond issues—all these are the expressions of public commitment that would not have seemed possible 10 years ago, and the end result of a dialogue whose intensity may be the single best guarantee of the future health of the Bay.

In the past decade, more people have come to see the Bay differently, not as the place where Rhode Island ends, but where it begins; to see it as the heart of the state, a dynamic living system whose riches demand dynamic care and stewardship.

In his final chapter, Stuart Hale painted a picture of the Bay he loved. If he were to stand today where he did then, the scene would look much the same. Herons still forage in the reeds along the shore. Beneath the surface, menhaden still shoal in bright, silver currents. The waters above the clam beds are dotted with quahoggers with their bullrakes who are bound to the Bay by ties of tradition and individualism.

Controversy still surrounds the Bay as it did 10 years ago, but perhaps there is greater agreement today about its value. Hale's book showed us how to see the complex historical and natural forces that shaped Narragansett Bay. As a guide to the future, we could do worse than to look at the Bay again through his eyes—with affection, respect, and a sense of wonder that we have been fortunate enough to live along its shores.

Frank Muhly, Jr., Providence, 1988

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