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 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.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Paris Climate Talks: What does it mean for the Bay

Image result for cop 21For the past two weeks, negotiators from across the globe have convened in Paris for the 21st United Nations conference on climate change. One hundred eighty six countries have come with ambitious pledges to limit greenhouse gas emissions. While past conferences have attempted to negotiate a treaty that would keep warming to 2 degrees Celsius, over 100 countries have now pushed to try and keep warming to 1.5 degrees.

It is unclear if this goal is possible given the amount of carbon we have already added to the atmosphere and the voluntary pledges being offered so far. Our current path including these pledges sets us up for 5 degrees, and we have already passed the 1 degree mark. Meeting a goal of only half a degree more of warming would require an unprecedented shift to a decarbonized economy across the world and would also require removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because of the urgency, the final treaty will likely have specific requirements to “ratchet up” the promises from each country. The goal is that by the year 2030, all countries would be on a common pace to revise these promises every five years.

Much of the focus at the conference has been on lowering the demand for fossil fuel and using technology to limit emissions while switching to renewable energy. This directly ignores the scientific consensus that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must say in the ground for us to remain below 2 degrees of warming. Keeping it in the ground is not being discussed at this point, and here at home, the United States promotes and subsidizes fossil fuel development while trying to limit carbon emissions – a very difficult task.

In Paris, and here at home, you will hear two major topics of discussion when it comes to climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation includes activities that will reduce or prevent greenhouse gas emissions, such as switching to renewable energy or preventing deforestation. Adaptation includes activities that reduce harm from the effects of climate change, such as removing infrastructure from flood prone areas, planting trees and treating stormwater.

Much of Save The Bay’s work in habitat restoration falls under adaptation. We are restoring salt marshes so that they provide habitat value for as long as they can be sustained. We are supporting dam removal as a way to connect rivers so that fish can migrate. We are helping cities and towns to move flooded infrastructure and treat stormwater. We also support mitigation by using solar panels at the Bay Center and advocating for renewable energy. On Tuesday, the RI Governor signed an executive order that will direct state agencies to get 100% of their energy use from renewable sources by 2025. It also supports zero emission vehicles, public transit and green buildings. 

There is a third piece of the puzzle, however, and that deals with loss and damage.

The problem, of course, is that no matter what we do in the coming years, some amount of sea level rise and temperature rise are already “baked in” and this will bring significant loss and damage to everyone on the planet to varying degrees. Already, Pacific Island nations are faced with abandoning areas that are uninhabitable, and droughts and floods are forcing people off their land.

This loss and damage is a bone of contention at the talks because poor countries feel that wealthy developed nations should shoulder the burden for making payments to them as restitution for causing much of the problem. Beyond money, assistance would include providing these countries with the capacity to cope and welcoming refugees from climate change disaster zones.

The sad reality is that so much damage has already been done we are beyond talking about mitigation and adaptation and are realizing that we could soon be dealing with a vast humanitarian crisis. The scale of that crisis depends on the strength of this and future climate agreements and how quickly they are acted upon by all the countries of the world.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Celebrating one year of gas free driving during Drive Electric Week

Image result for drive electric week

Last summer, I interviewed Save The Bay’s Facilities Manager about his decision to lease a Chevy Volt. The Volt is an electric drive vehicle with a gasoline engine for extended range. The all electric range is about 40 miles, after which a gasoline engine takes over. This is slightly different from a hybrid engine which switches back and forth from gasoline power to electric power during driving. After doing some research of my own, I decided last September to lease an all-electric Nissan Leaf, and go gasoline free. I like the simplicity of having one engine and virtually no maintenance other than tires and brakes.

Driving an all-electric car does take some planning ahead, and is best for city driving. The range varies widely depending on outside temperature and driving conditions. On good days, the range can top 90 miles with moderate driving speeds, but winter weather and use of the heat lowers the range under 80 miles. The car starts to warn you when running with under 20% of the battery remaining, so I generally take 20 miles off my effective range when planning my driving. With a battery instead of a gas tank, I feel like there is a direct feedback and connection to my own energy consumption and driving habits.

Rhode Island Supports Electric Vehicles
In 2013, Rhode Island partnered with National Grid to install 50 public charging stations through the ChargePoint Network. These stations are free to network members for the first four years while owners pay for the electricity. After four years, owners of the stations can decide to keep them free or begin using a fee based system. The stations are distributed throughout the state and are located at the state beaches, malls and restaurants such as Cilantro Grill and Chili’s, and at other locations such as Rhode Island College and Bryant University.

But what About the Electricity?
If you are interested in a direct comparison of energy consumption and costs for an electric car and a gasoline car, here are some of the things I have learned. One gallon of gasoline has the equivalent amount of energy as 34 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. Our second car, the Honda Fit, gets about 34 miles/gallon or about 1 mile per kWh. My Leaf diagnostics tell me that I average about 4.6 miles per kWh, or the equivalent of about 156 miles per gallon. The 2015 Nissan Leaf advertises an average miles per gallon equivalent of 114 miles, so either I am very efficient or my car is not very accurate.

The 2015 Nissan Leaf battery holds 24 kWh of energy. This means that a full charge at 16 cents per kWh costs about $3.84. I have been using about 200 kWh at home every month, for a cost of about $32. It also means that at an average of 4.6 miles per kWh, I should have a range of 110 miles, which is kind of pushing it. I have heard that the diagnostics are not very accurate, and that is something being worked on. 

To me, all those numbers mean that my electric car is almost five times more efficient than my gasoline car, regardless of the fuel type. Because of regenerative braking technology, the brake pads last up to three years longer. Fewer fluids and oils means less contribution to stormwater pollution. No exhaust means I am not contributing to low level ozone pollution, the major cause of air quality alert days in the heat of the summer. In addition, electric vehicles emit only 19.8% of the total heat emitted by conventional vehicles per mile, reducing the heat island effect in cities.

What About other Sources of Pollution?
Electric vehicles do create more pollution during the manufacturing process, and they do require electricity to be generated somewhere, using some type of energy source. The best scenario would be to plug in to a solar panel array or to purchase green energy through your electric company. Not all parts of the country are set up to distribute electricity from clean sources of fuel. The east and west coasts, however, happen to be areas where the electricity mix is steadily becoming more and more renewable.

According to the Sierra Club, in Massachusetts EVs have about 70% lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional cars. If you are interested in seeing the energy mix going into New England’s electricity generation in real-time, check out this site from ISO New England (our energy grid operator).

The Future of Electric Vehicles
In October 2013, eight states which include Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Washington and California, signed a pledge to get 3.3 million EVs on the road by 2025. I am fairly confident that we will soon reach a tipping point and this goal will be easily surpassed. When the 2018 models start rolling out, we will see range go up over the 200 mile mark and electric cars will be mainstream. Electric options are available from most major car companies already.

The problem with being an early adopter, however, is that depreciation is relatively high, given that the technology is getting so much better with each new car model. This does provide some opportunities, however, if you are looking to get into the electric car game and save a bunch of money. I am very happy with my choice and am looking forward to seeing what happens. I am already fighting for space at the public charging stations that I use, so I know there is a growing crowd out there with me. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Omega Pond Fish Ladder opens up the Ten Mile River

After several delays and technical challenges, the Omega Pond fish ladder at the mouth of the Ten Mile River was finally opened just in time for this year's spring fish run. Herring were waiting at the dam when the ladder was opened, and fish were seen making their way to Hunt's Mill where an annual fish count is done by volunteers.

Save The Bay's connection to this project began in 1996, when  Paul Bettencourt took Wenley Ferguson on a tour of the ponds where he once fished for herring, now long since filled in. They stopped at the Omega Pond dam, where Paul shared his vision of restoring the fish run. Dick Quinn, an engineer with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, completed a conceptual design for three fish ladders, and the project began in 2001 with an Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study. The project was a collaboration between many state, federal and local partners including Save The Bay, the CRMC, DEM, the City of East Providence and the Ten Mile River Watershed Council.

About 65% percent of the funding for the project was provided by federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This funding includes about $5 million from the Army Corps of Engineers. 

Now that three fish ladders are in place, herring have three river miles and about 340 acres of habitat in which to spawn. They can now make their way to the Massachusetts state line, where they find the next dam at the Pawtucket Country Club. This dam is part of the Ten Mile River Reservation and is owned by RI DEM. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has been supporting this project and provided fish from the Nemasket River herring run in Middleboro. These fish were stocked into the upper Ten Mile River to help maintain the run. The run was also maintained by a group of fishermen who for over ten years scooped returning herring and stocked them into the river under cover of darkness. These scooping events became celebrations as more and more fish returned and several thousand fish were helped over Omega Pond dam. 

Save The Bay will continue to work on this project and will advocate for continued river restoration. Water quality improvements are still desperately needed and the upper Turner Reservoir and Central Ponds often experience blooms of toxic blue-green algae. The flow in the Ten Mile River, like many of the Bay's small tributaries, is dominated by wastewater effluent. The Attleboro treatment plant is under strict new permit limits, but nutrient pollution in stormwater and from birds and wildlife is still contaminating the river. Opening up the fish passage is only part of the story. True habitat restoration will take work on many fronts including water quality and in stream habitat. We can now begin a dialogue with Massachusetts about additional restoration opportunities over the border, and the work is just beginning!