A bay runs through it
Rethinking Narragansett Bay as Rhode Island’s 40th – and largest – community
The same holds true for the state if it wants to protect Narragansett Bay in the face of plans by the Trump administration to gut the EPA and de-fund environmental regulations. The connections between the health, the environment and the economy and Rhode Island’s future prosperity need to become part of the conversation around spending priorities.
PROVIDENCE – No matter what kind of map someone draws of Rhode Island, Narragansett Bay will always be there, lapping at the edges of how the state defines itself, converging around the boundaries of the economic and natural resources that enrich our state and cleanse and preserve our ecosystem.
Whatever metaphor one chooses – thoroughfare, beacon, garden, soul, or jewel – to describe Narragansett Bay, the body of water serves as an undercurrent connecting the flow of Rhode Island’s history, psyche and consciousness: from quahogger to slaver to rumrunner to oyster farmer; from port to fort to beach to resort; from chugging industrial barge to ocean racing sailboat; from gateway to tourism magnet to open sewer.
It can be envisioned as Rhode Island’s 40th and perhaps largest community, with its own set of governing bodies, regulations, advocates and residents, although its ebb and flow is often neglected, overlooked, taken for granted and undervalued. [Except in the world of real estate, where elaborate homes with water views still fetch the highest prices.]
As Joanna Detz, the executive director of ecoRI News, shared with ConvergenceRI, from an excerpt from Frank Carini’s story, “It’s the Economy [and the Environment], Stupid,” from April 20, 2015:
“Some 12 million people visit Narragansett Bay annually to fish, swim, surf and sun. Many of those visitors also shop and dine locally. In the late 1990s, the Ocean State’s tourism industry was second only to health services in terms of total wages, and 30 percent of that tourism was associated with amenity-based uses of Narragansett Bay, according to a 2008 study funded by the EPA.”
The story continued: “Narragansett Bay also is commercially important for the shellfish industry. An estimated 15 percent of Rhode Island’s total lobster landings are caught in the bay, according to that 2008 report. In addition, the state’s quahog fishery is contained mostly within Narragansett Bay, with an average value of about $7.5 million annually.”
Further, the story pointed out the importance of environmental regulations in securing a better Bay:
“Environmental regulations can protect the economy and human health. It's also possible to grow smart and be profitable,” Carini wrote. “Research shows that environmental regulations reduce infant mortality, decrease hospitalizations and increase real estate values.
In the shadows
Whatever the dominance of Narragansett Bay’s role in keeping the state healthy and wealthy, it is often kept in the dark shadows of the state’s realpolitik.
• Narragansett Bay did not, for instance, come up as even the smallest blip on the radar screen at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s recent annual legislative lunch on Feb. 12, at which business leaders peppered R.I. General Assembly leaders with questions, mostly about taxes and regulations and spending priorities.
• Narragansett Bay was not considered as one of the issues for promises made to benchmark Gov. Gina Raimondo’s first two years in office, in The Providence Journal’s recent analysis of her job performance published on Feb. 12.
• And, protecting the health of Narragansett Bay did not come up in the recent “Oh, gosh” interview by Molly O’Brien with Brad Read on GoLocal Live on Feb. 9, talking about the return of Volvo Ocean Race to Newport and the activities of Sail Newport.
The current threats
So much has been achieved in the last four decades in improving the quality of Narragansett Bay that the current threats to its health – and to the state’s health – are often overlooked when talking about the state’s economic future.
Research on the rise in ocean temperatures as a result of climate change has been linked to changes in fishing habitats and populations, such as lobsters moving north to colder waters.
The number of beach closings in the summer due to bacteria and algae blooms continues to grow.
As Carini wrote: “Southern New England’s fisheries, however, are feeling the pressures of a changing climate, global overfishing, and pollution from stormwater runoff, wastewater discharges and the overuse of nitrogen-rich fertilizers. Rhode Island’s lobster fishery could disappear by the end of the next decade, according to some projections. Overfishing alone doesn’t account for the local decline in winter flounder; warming waters also have played a big part.”
Now, under President Donald Trump, plans are for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to be dismantled; environmental regulations, so important to promoting clean air and clean water [and protecting Narragansett Bay], are promised to be undone.
Rhode Islanders may no longer be able to find out if the water is safe to swim in at their local beaches: the R.I. Department of Health receives approximately $200,000 a year from the EPA to monitor the quality of water in Rhode Island regarding its swimmable quality and beach closings, according to agency spokesman Joseph Wendelken.
Being saved again
The potential loss of federal funds and the dismantling of federal regulations could wreak havoc on the future health and well being of Narragansett Bay – and of Rhode Island.
In the same way that Save The Bay, founded in 1970, once galvanized residents of Rhode Island to protect its “most precious resource,” did there now need to be a new campaign launched to protect Narragansett Bay? Was there a need to conceptualize Narragansett Bay as the state’s 40th community?
ConvergenceRI reached out to Jonathan Stone, executive director at Save The Bay, and to Joanna Detz, the executive director at ecoRI News, to get their perspective. Here is what they had to say.
ConvergenceRI: Does Rhode Island need to launch a new campaign to save Narragansett Bay again? Is there a need to reposition Narragansett Bay as Rhode Island’s 40th community?
STONE: You are asking great questions. In the immediate future, we may not be able to rely on the federal government and its support for efforts to protect Narragansett Bay. For us, it will be up to the Rhode Island community, and, in particular, our elected leaders, to provide the resources and the political will to protect Rhode Island’s greatest natural resource.
It’s a call to action.
ConvergenceRI: Has the message been heard?
STONE: A little bit. The Governor hears what we have to say. We would like to see more investment in her budget to protect the progress we have made in the Bay.
We have a broad base of support, which has been really invested in protecting Narragansett Bay. Now, it’s time to step up and to express [the importance of protecting the Bay] to the leadership of the R.I. General Assembly, particularly in the House, which controls the budget.
The governor is constrained by whatever the House does.
ConvergenceRI: Is there a need to reposition Narragansett Bay as Rhode Island’s largest community?
STONE: I couldn’t agree more. Let me tell you about a project we are doing in collaboration with Rhode Island PBS. We are developing a series featuring people from all walks of life whose work revolves around Narragansett Bay, from quahog fisherman to real estate people working on coastal properties.
It’s a large constellation of people whose lives orbit around the bay. That’s the community we need to mobilize [in the face of the latest threat].
ConvergenceRI: Do you think they will respond?
STONE: Historically, the general population has supported efforts to protect the incredible resources of Narragansett Bay. Voters have consistently approved ballot referenda to clean up and protect the Bay by extraordinary margins. The most recent bond passed with 67 percent in favor. People do get it.
It is interesting to note that voters in Providence and Woonsocket and Burrillville care as much as or more than coastal communities.
ConvergenceRI: It’s so easy to get distracted by the daily occurrences, such as the weather reports of the latest snow storm, without focusing on the relevance of larger threats, such as what will happen if the Environmental Protection Agency is dismantled, regulations are removed and funding is slashed in terms of protecting Narragansett Bay. What do you see as the potential impacts from the loss of federal funds?
STONE: We have a number of different state agencies, such the Department of Environmental Management, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Coastal Resources Management Council, where a significant portion of their budget comes from the federal government.
In some cases, it is as high as 30 percent. Loss of those federal funds will be a big deal for those state agencies. They will either have massive layoff or the state is going to have to step up.
It will likely happen in next year’s federal budget, but it is a tidal wave that is coming. It’s really the tip of the iceberg.
The federal matching funds for clean water, wastewater treatment and drinking water has been hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade.
The state is going to have to fill the gap.
ConvergenceRI: What is the responsibility of the business community?
STONE: We cannot take for granted what has taken decades to clean up. The business community should not be complacent about this precious natural resource and its role in attracting employees to live here.
Most people who move to Rhode Island have some connection to the Bay. There are major recreational and environmental reasons why people choose to live here, and what attracts people to the Ocean State.
Businesses cannot be complacent or myopic about the threats. Nothing in the natural world is static.
We’re in a period of extraordinary environmental challenge and climate change, and with the new administration, a threat to funding for environmental protection.
There is no rule of nature that says the changes cannot lead to the deterioration of the Bay and its water quality.
We feel strongly that the state has got to step up, given what’s going in Washington and given the threat to funding. We believe that voters will reward elected officials at the polls [if they do step up].
It is good economics and good for the health of our most precious resources.
Linking economics, environment
For ecoRI News, Rhode Island’s foremost environmental publication, the connection between the economy and the environment is a fundamental tenet.
ConvergenceRI: How important is it to educate Rhode Islanders about the threat posed by the potential loss of federal funds and the dismantlement of environmental regulations and the harm it will do to the state’s prosperity?
DETZ: We did a piece about the economy and the environment and the how the two are linked, in terms of educating people. The link between economic health and environmental health is equally important.
ConvergenceRI: Is there a need to think about Narragansett as Rhode Island’s largest community?
DETZ: With this new administration, the future of funding is uncertain for environmental agencies.
I think your premise of thinking about the Bay as a community that borders on many others is an important concept, because it is going to come down to communities to help protect the Bay and to individuals and volunteers to do the work.
And when you think about Narragansett Bay as a major driver of tourism tied to recreation, losing that would be a huge blow to the state’s economy. Protecting the Bay is linked to the future health of Rhode Island.
ConvergenceRI: What kinds of changes in consciousness are needed?
DETZ: I think people already value the Bay; they love it. What we’ve reported on is to try to educate people, even for those who do not directly border the Bay, they’re living in the watershed, is to start thinking about stormwater run off when you put in a new development and how it impacts your favorite beach.
Save The Bay and smaller nonprofits have done a good job around education, but more needs to be done.
People vote for green bonds overwhelmingly; Rhode Islanders value open space.
ConvergenceRI: What are the questions that we need to ask?
DETZ: It comes down to pocketbook issues: what it would mean to lose the Bay economically. What if there are more beach closures, for instance.
In terms of tourism, so many people come here to enjoy the Bay, the beaches, the fishing. We need to frame the conversation as an economic story.
In terms of funding, who’s going to pay for the water quality testing to keep our beaches clean?