Friday, September 22, 2017

Microplastics in our Waters

Microplastics in our Waters | Riverkeeper Blog

By Rachel Calabro, Save The Bay Riverkeeper

Photo: http://www.bearder.eu/microplastics
Microplastics are bits of plastic debris that are less than 5 mm in size. They are prevalent in ocean waters and on beaches where they pose a risk to marine life. Microplastics can come from break-up of large plastic that ends up in the ocean, or they can be microbeads or pellets that are manufactured. Synthetic fibers that either wash into the ocean or come from ropes and nets are also counted. These synthetic fibers often come from our polyester fleece clothing and can enter the ocean through the waste stream. Plastic microbeads first started showing up in personal care products more than 50 years ago. Their use increased until 2015, when President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act. This act calls for the phase-out of microbeads in personal care products such as toothpaste and soaps.

According to an article in the Journal of Science, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. As this plastic breaks down over time, it adds to the prevalence of tiny bits of plastic that can be ingested by marine organisms. Studies are now being done on what this plastic does to animals in terms of feeding changes, reproduction and accumulation of toxins or as a vector for pathogens. Other studies are looking at how chemicals such as flame retardants leach out of plastics or how other chemicals stick to plastics. Different types of plastics react differently when they break down or when they are subjected to digestive juices in animals. Many animals tend to eat these particles because they are covered in algae. Studies are also being done to understand the types of algae that live on microplastics.

If fish are ingesting these particles, we are too. They even show up in sea salt made from evaporated ocean water. Save The Bay is interested in how much microplastic is in the waters of Narragansett Bay. In order to learn more, we are teaming up with Clean Water Action to trawl the Bay this summer to find out how much we can collect and where in the Bay it is found. We will take that information and share it with policymakers and the public to find ways to stop plastic from entering the Bay. You can make a difference by using less plastic and making sure that what you do use gets recycled.

Dammed Wildlife



The Kickemuit River Fish Ladder was built on the
Warren Reservoir 
to give migrating river
herring access to the pond.
By Rachel Calabro, Save The Bay Riverkeeper

Imagine you are a river fish. To thrive in your environment, you have a few requirements. Cool water with enough oxygen will keep you alert and active. Insects that wash downstream or emerge from the stream bottom will keep you fed. Sand and gravel in which to lay your eggs and plenty of places to hide from predators are also keys to survival. When rivers function properly, all these things are in place to support a wide diversity of fish and insects.

But when environmental stresses, such as low water levels or warm water, are present, fish need places to go for refuge. Just like on a hot sunny day you might seek the shade of a tree, fish seek out cold spots in deep pools and under bits of wood in the stream. Fish also need to find mates to increase their genetic diversity and species health. A healthy population of fish will be able to migrate up and downstream and into tributary streams to mix and mingle with others of their species and to find new habitat. These are all parts of a healthy stream ecosystem.


An historic photo of Pawtuxet Bridge and
falls before the dam was removed in 2011. 

Dams, culverts and other physical changes to a stream can cause harm not only to the species living there, but also to the quality of the water and habitat for other wildlife and surrounding ecosystems. Dams change the dynamics of a stream by slowing the water, allowing fine sediment to deposit rather than flow downstream, and changing both temperature and nutrients in the water. Warm water holds less oxygen. Gravels are covered over by fine silts and sands. In essence, a dam turns a river into a pond. Fish that thrive in ponds move in to the newly created habitat, cutting off the upstream habitat from the fish living in the river below. As a result, genetic diversity suffers, and less food comes downstream. The community of river fish changes as well.

Humans have caused many changes to our surrounding environment, but few of our changes to streams and rivers have had as much consequence as dams. Although beavers have made dams for thousands of years, altering the landscape in many ways, these dams are temporary and an important part of creating a constantly changing set of diverse wetland systems. Our wildlife adapt and thrive with these changes. Most of our man-made dams no longer serve their original purpose of providing power for mills. They have become icons of industrial and community heritage with lasting negative effects on river and stream ecosystems.


The Hopewell Mills dam was removed in 2012 to restore the
Mill River in Taunton, Massachusetts. Three dams on
this river are being removed.
Efforts to restore migrating fish populations with fish ladders have allowed us to leave the dams and preserve their legacy while trying to accommodate some lost river function. But these aging structures are becoming a hazard for our communities as they reach the end of their functional lives, threatening either to release years of sediment that has accumulated behind them or flooding downstream towns and structures when they fail.

Climate change is adding to the challenge of managing undersized and outdated dams. Unpredictability in our weather and increasing severity of both droughts and floods will require our ecosystems to be more resilient and our wildlife to be more adaptive. This means allowing for more migration, more chances to find refuge, and more diversity in habitat. Mammals and birds can migrate across the landscape and can move in response to shifts in temperature. Fish can migrate only as far as they can swim, and for many, that means as far as the next dam upstream. We are seeing major shifts in ocean fish related to changing ocean temperatures, so we expect populations of freshwater fish to change as well.


The Hopewell Mills dam was removed in 2012 to
restore the Mill River in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Three dams on this river are being removed.
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, New England has a larger density of small dams than any other place in the country. More than 600 dams still stand in Rhode Island, more than 3,000 in Massachusetts, and more than 6,000 in Connecticut. Many of these dams are over 200 years old. Working with various local partners, as well as partners in state and federal government, Save The Bay supports dam removal projects that aim to create resilient streams with diverse habitats.

Dam removal has really gathered steam in Massachusetts, where more than 50 dams have been removed in the last 15 years. The Commonwealth has an entire Division of Ecological Restoration that works not only on dams, but on culverts, stream flow and wetland restoration. The state has made a concerted effort to support these projects through capitol authorizations and grant programs.

Rhode Island also has a small habitat restoration fund and supports river restoration projects through state bond referenda, but no dedicated program for riverine habitat restoration exists in state government. Here, local watershed councils and others must initiate fundraising and manage projects. Save The Bay has assisted on several dam removal projects in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, providing technical, fundraising and outreach support. These projects require multiple partners, from the federal government to local volunteers, and take many years to complete.

Of the 496 animal species federally listed as threatened or endangered, nearly half are freshwater species that have found themselves living in small habitat “islands” due to the cumulative effects of dams, roads and development. This makes them extremely vulnerable to one-time events such as last year’s drought, which dried up small streams in the Taunton watershed and killed many localized populations of rare freshwater mussels.

Diadromous fish—those that migrate between fresh and salt water, like herring, shad, sturgeon, smelt and eels—have all suffered population declines to less than five percent of historic levels, and many rivers lost these species completely. In addition, only about five percent of historic brook trout populations remain and are extremely vulnerable to temperature stress. We have seen many gains in water quality in the last few decades, but we still must remain vigilant in the protection of our most vulnerable freshwater species. The Narragansett Bay watershed depends on us.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Rattlesnake Brook Dam Removed in Freetown

The Taunton River watershed is becoming more fish friendly as another dam is removed in an effort to increase habitat. The Rattlesnake Brook Dam, owned by the Fall River water department, was recently removed to help fish access habitats cut off for almost 200 years. The dam had partially failed and was unsafe in its former condition. Rattlesnake Brook is part of the Assonet River watershed, which drains into the Taunton River just north of Fall River. Assonet Bay has some of the healthiest salt marshes in the Narragansett Bay watershed and is home to threatened diamondback terrapins.

Dam removal is becoming commonplace in Massachusetts as a way to eliminate flooding risk and to restore free flowing rivers. This project is the 44th dam removal to take place in the state, and already the total has reached to over 50. Three more dam removal projects are planned for next year in the Taunton River watershed, and other dams are in study. The Taunton River was designated as a Wild & Scenic River in part because of its large and healthy fish run. The migratory river herring run is the largest in the state and will increase as other rivers are opened up for spawning. American eel, white perch and shad are also benefitting from these projects.

Save The Bay has been supporting these projects as a partner for many years. We provide outreach and community support to get projects started, and technical support as they move through design. Habitat restoration in the Taunton River watershed is one of our long term strategic goals. Rivers that are free flowing and connected are better able to support wildlife and are more resilient to changes in climate. We look forward to supporting more projects in the coming years.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Getting out Ahead of Invasive Species


This summer, Save The Bay has been working with local residents in Rehoboth, Massachusetts to remove invasive water chestnut from Shad Factory Pond. Water Chestnut is an annual plant that is rooted in the pond bottom and has floating leaves and small white flowers. Large black nuts form under the surface and have very sharp barbs that can stick to animals and can float downstream. The nuts stay viable in the sediment for up to 12 years, and each nut can produce 10-15 plants, so you can see how hard it is to eliminate this plant once it gets established in a waterbody.

Thick mats of floating water chestnut leaves can take over in ponds and slow moving rivers by shading out other plants and reducing oxygen in the water. It spreads rapidly and displaces native species. The most common method for removal is to hand-pull the plants in mid-summer before the nuts fall. This hand-pulling is hard work, but over several years can effectively limit the spread of the plant. When the problem gets too big for volunteers, mechanical harvesters are often used to pull plants on a large scale.

Water Chestnut is of particular concern on Shad Factory Pond because the Palmer River is an important fish run for herring and shad. Save The Bay is beginning a study this summer in partnership with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to study spawning habitat in the pond. We are looking at dissolved oxygen, water clarity, pH, nutrients and spawning substrate to see if there is enough suitable habitat for fish. In addition to the water chestnut, other invasive plants including milfoil and fanwort along with native pond lilies and other submerged plants are limiting the available oxygen and harming spawning substrate.


Central Pond in East Providence, part of the Ten Mile River, also has a large infestation of water chestnut. This is of concern because fish passage was recently restored to this system as well. Harmful algae blooms have also been an issue on this pond, and invasive species can make the problem worse. As we try to re-introduce fish to river systems around the Bay, we also need to be concerned with what they will find when they arrive.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Reporting Pollution

As Save The Bay’s Riverkeeper, I respond to issues out on the rivers and Bay that are brought to our attention by the public.. People are often concerned when they see or smell something that isn’t right. Many times, what they are seeing is natural, but can be a result of excess seaweed, algae or plant growth. While the Bay looks beautiful, our rivers are bringing in nutrients and other pollution from the upper watershed that washes off the land. This invisible pollution can feed the plant growth and cause algae blooms. This is what I found yesterday when I went to Festival Pier in Pawtucket. Fishermen there thought they were seeing sewage, when what they were actually seeing was decomposing sea lettuce and other brown algae. These algae had blown up the Bay with the afternoon sea breeze and accumulated along the pier. Still, we’re grateful to have eyes and ears out there on the water, alerting us to possible problems.

When trying to decide if something is a natural occurrence or something to worry about, look for the the following clues: 

Sewage: Be on the lookout for milky or grey colored water that contains bits of toilet paper or other floating material. It will also have a strong sewage odor.

Foam: Natural foam often accumulates on rivers below dams or in other areas where water is moving swiftly. It can catch in tree snags and will usually be a light brown or yellow color from the accumulation of pollen and dust. It will fall apart and dissolve when shaken with a stick. Foam caused by pollution from soap will be white and fluffy and will come back together if it is touched. 

Sheen: If you see rainbow sheen on the surface of the water, check it with a stick as well. In wetlands or other areas of stagnant water, bacterial breakdown of organic matter will cause a shiny film on the surface. If it breaks up when touched, it is natural. Oil sheen from pollution is generally very light and will hold together when touched. It will also have a strong oily odor. Oil sheen tends to spread out on the surface of the water. 

Red or Orange Sediment: If you see a bright orange film on the bottom of a creek or wetland, this is most likely due to iron oxide. This is caused by low oxygen environments in wetlands and groundwater where iron dissolves in the water. When this water exits the ground or wetland and oxygen is reintroduced, the iron comes out of solution and settles on the bottom. 

If you do see something that is concerning, try to send us a photo so that we can help diagnose the problem. Send us an address so we can check on Google Earth, and potentially go out to see the problem. You can reach Save The Bay at 272-3540 and savebay@savebay.org. For emergencies, call DEM’s 24-hour response number at 401-222-3070. To report a sewage spill to the Narragansett Bay Commission, dial their main line at 401-461-6540 and press 9.

Fish Passage is More Than Just Dams

We all drive across streams and rivers every day without much thought. Sometimes we look over the edge of a bridge to see the river running underneath. Sometimes, we don’t even know that a stream is running by underneath the road. Smaller streams tend to run through culverts, either round pipes or square cement boxes under the road. Unlike bridges, these culverts often constrict the stream and cause it to flow through a very narrow opening. 

Narrow culverts and pipes do not make good passage for the fish and other wildlife that need to use streams and rivers as corridors. Fish need to move up and down stream to mate, eat and find refuge. Turtles, frogs and salamanders do too, as do mammals like river otters and raccoons. When they are forced to go up and over the road, small wildlife can be killed by traffic. 

When the openings under roads are too narrow, flooding can happen and roads can wash out during storms. Many times road repairs are made and the culverts are replaced at the same size when they should in fact be bigger. Climate change is also causing larger storm events and more rain that swells streams and causes road flooding. Public works departments need to be aware of undersized culverts where they are causing harm to wildlife and public safety.

This summer, Save The Bay habitat interns are assisting staff with evaluating culverts and bridges in the Palmer and Kickemuit Rivers as part of our larger effort to study fish passage and habitat quality in these Upper Bay watersheds. We are on the lookout for areas where fish could get trapped or not be able to swim through a culvert. We are also helping to train new surveyors from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and local conservation commissions. 

So far, we have found a mix of different culverts from plastic pipes to cement boxes and stone bridges. None of these structures completely meet the standard of having dry passage or for the crossing to span both the stream and the river banks. In our car centered culture, it is sometimes a good learning experience to think of yourself as a fish or a turtle and to figure out how you would navigate your world with a human imprint.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Getting to Know your Local Wild & Scenic Rivers


The Taunton River is the only major coastal river in our region that has no dams or obstructions over its entire length. In this estuary, the tide rises and falls for over 18 miles of the river’s length making it home to rare plants and habitats that exist in this freshwater tidal environment. The watershed is one of the most diverse and intact coastal ecosystems in Southern New England. Because of its scenic beauty and important habitats, the Taunton River was designated by Congress as a Partnership Wild & Scenic River in 2009.



The National Park Service started the Partnership Wild & Scenic Rivers program as a way to manage special rivers that are not owned by the federal government. These rivers are designated for their scenic, historic and recreational values, as well as important natural elements such as biodiversity, fisheries, and unique geologic features. These outstandingly remarkable values are regionally significant and make these rivers a high priority for protection. The rivers are managed jointly by the National Park Service and a local stewardship council made up of representatives from the local communities. There are currently 13 designated rivers in eight states covering more than 700 river miles.

At the end of 2014, a bill was passed in Congress to study the rivers in the Wood-Pawcatuck River watershed for potential designation. Before rivers are designated, they go through a three year study period where a committee is formed to review and identify outstandingly remarkable values. The Wood-Pawcatuck study committee began meeting in November, 2015 and will be working to identify important resources, both natural and cultural, throughout the watershed. The Wood-Pawcatuck watershed also includes the Beaver, Queen and Chipuxet Rivers in Rhode Island and the Shunnock and Green Falls Rivers in Connecticut.


The Wood-Pawcatuck River watershed is home to the largest natural fresh water lake in Rhode Island, as well as large areas of swamps and bogs that were formed as part of the glacial terrain of Southern New England. The study committee will be learning about the rare species of fish, plants and birds that are present in the watershed, and about opportunities to preserve and restore important natural habitats.

Since its designation in 2009, the Taunton River Stewardship Council has been working throughout the watershed to increase recreational opportunities, protect riverfront land, and restore habitats. Several dam removal projects have been completed or are under way, and a new state park has been created. The Taunton River Pathways project has been developed to highlight both walking, biking and canoe trails. This summer will be a great time to get out and explore both of these local natural treasures and experience what it means to be Wild & Scenic.