Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective
It is September again. The marsh grasses along Fishing Cove in Wickford Harbor have made their seed. A stiff wind blows across the harbor and the grasses are pliant, a billowing fringe of beige and green at the water's edge.
A sparrow hawk hovers on rapid wingbeats above the marsh, hungry and keen-eyed in its search for small creatures, and because the wind has been blowing for a long time, the tide has had help and large sections of the marsh are submerged. Farther inland than usual, a snowy egret wades at the back of the marsh, its purpose the same as that of the sparrow hawk.
It is a fine thing to live near the water. Here in the marshy back coves of the harbor there is a rich and varied natural life. There is considerable activity among the egrets, great blue herons, green herons, yellowlegs, and plover, and an occasional glossy ibis comes at low tide and speaks of teeming life in the shallows. A small part of the cove only occasionally wetted by the tide supports a large colony of fiddler crabs. The small crabs scuttle for safety as I walk barefoot across their muddy territory. I wonder if they always return to their own holes or scoot into the handiest one even if owned by a neighbor. I have never seen a crowd jammed about a single entrance.
There are myriads of small fish in the shallows at the edges of the marsh, and these have to move about swiftly and hope that the diving terns, kingfishers, and stalking egrets miss them and take one of their fellows instead. One can easily dig out with fingers a half bucket of quahogs, or more if company comes for chowder, clams casino, or fresh little necks on the half shell.
These are simple pleasures which many shore dwellers know. There are others nearby: sandy beaches for sunning and swimming, fishing farther out in the harbor, marinas across the harbor for the berthing of large boats, trails for walking among thick woodlands of oak and cedar where land birds, rabbits, and squirrels abound.
Although the shores of the Bay have changed since the days of Roger Williams, ample riches remain. Will they be here for future generations to enjoy?
There are encouraging signs:
The Bay is no longer taken for granted. There is a new interest and concern for its condition.
The salt marshes and wildlife regions of the Bay are coming under increased protection. This is important, for there is clear evidence that these are extremely valuable in maintaining the ecological balance among the Bay's populations of plants and animals.
The Bay Islands Park concept appears to have a chance of becoming a reality. If it does, the central islands in the Bay should remain free from most development pressures. This will help immeasurably in preserving the natural qualities of the shoreline.
The picture is not entirely filled with sunshine, however:
The Bay's shoreline, the central islands aside, will change as populations grow. Valuable open space will fill with structures of various kinds.
Ill-planned commercial and industrial enterprises could poison the water, destroy the marine life, and make the shores ugly to behold.
A saturation level of pleasure boating may be reached where not enough moorings and finger piers exist to satisfy demand.
Access to the water through right-of-ways and public beaches may prove insufficient to meet the needs of the resident population and the inland visitors.
Necessary dredging of ship channels, turning basins, and berths may lead to unwise bulkheading and landfill operations, which would sacrifice wetlands and diminish water areas.
Either through conscious decision or apathy, the public may allow one major use of the Bay. such as commerce, recreation, or disposal. to dominate all others.
It is not likely that any of the negative things will happen except for an increase in structures along the shore. But even in this, steps are possible which can reduce the impact of waterfront crowding. Cluster zoning for residential units is one of these. Vigorously enforced flood plain zoning is another. Stringent building and siting codes will help. The most valuable scenic, recreational, and wildlife sites and corridors for water access can be purchased by state and local governments.
If water recreation is to grow, as it surely will, innovative ways will have to be found to reduce crowding in congested anchorages. Traditional mooring practices which require an obstruction-free swinging circle 100 feet in diameter for a single boat may give way to other techniques. Stack storage on racks ashore for small boats already has appeared. In some locations, bow and stern anchorages may help. Another solution to crowding is to have large floats support clusters of finger piers at yacht clubs. A dozen cruising boats would be berthed at such a floating dock in an area now occupied by a single mooring. Owners would reach their boats by yacht club tenders, as they do now.
The threat to the quality of the Bay from waterfront location of undesirable industrial and commercial enterprises is real enough if state and local officials are whipsawed by unemployment problems and inadequate tax revenues. The chances are, however, thatmost enterprises which do not require access to the Bay for their livelihood will locate inland. Those that do will have to meet acceptable environmental standards. This is where the big fights of the future will develop. One can hope also that through pressure the designers of such establishments can make them fit as unobtrusively into the natural shoreline as possible. Good examples of such design for manufacturing and commercial buildings exist inland. Generally, however, aesthetic qualities have not entered the minds of waterfront builders.
Actually, the Bay is not likely to support major maritime industries except at a few locations where deep water channels exist. As a result, guardians of the Bay's natural qualities can focus their attention on such places as the Port of Providence, the excess Navy lands at Quonset Point and Davisville, the southern end of Prudence Island, perhaps Gould Island in the lower East Passage, and idle Navy holdings along the Newport and Portsmouth shore. At these locations they'll have their work cut out for them.
Because the traditional uses to which the Bay has been put over the last three centuriesócommerce, fishing, and recreationówill probably not only continue in the future but increase, new generations will have to watch over this expanse of open space, over the beauty of its islands, coves, and marshes. It is not likely that they will want to squander such bounty.
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