Innovation Ecosystem

Narragansett Bay: Warmer, cooler, challenged and threatened

An interview with Curt Spalding on the future challenges facing the Rhode Island ecosystem, whose career path has gone from advocate at Save the Bay, to administrator at the regional EPA offices in Boston, and now to professor at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Photo courtesy of Save The Bay

The swimmers who participated in the 2016 Save The Bay annual swim, celebrating its conclusion.

Photo by Richard Asinof

Curt Spalding, the former regional administrator for EPA in Boston, and the former director of Save The Bay, has been hired as a new professor at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Science.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/24/17
The hiring of Curt Spalding as a professor at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society creates new impetus for students and faculty to be more outfacing in their research and engagement with community around issues of sustainability.
How will the School of Public Health at Brown and its researchers find common ground in addressing the challenges of sustainability and adaptability in Rhode Island? Is there an opportunity for economists such as Anna Aizer and her research on lead poisoning to be integrated into the work at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society? What are the data sources that currently exist in Rhode Island on health and education that can serve as important research tools? Is there a way to create an environmental experiential education program for legislators? How can efforts to address the vast amounts of plastic pollution in our oceans become integrated into the Institute’s ongoing academic program? What are the benefits of creating nodal points for renewable energy in Rhode Island to lessen peak demand on the grid?
As one of the industry sectors that Rhode Island has sought to promote, food has been at the center of much conversation – including restaurants, farming, food as medicine, food distribution, local food production, seafood harvesting, and fresh food outreach as a function of health equity.
What has been missing from this conversation, for the most part, has been a dialogue around sustainability when it comes to land, soil nutrients, and water resources. Where, for instance, will all the fresh water needed to sustain expanded agricultural yields come from, given the increasing demands on drinking water sources? How will changing water temperatures and rising tides change Narragansett Bay’s ecosystem and impact fish populations? Does there need to be restrictions on new waterfront housing and development to protect the existing watersheds? As the intensity of storms increase, will the frequency of 100-year-storms, such as the one that struck Rhode Island in 2010, swamp the existing water treatment plant infrastructure? And, who will lead such public conversations?

PROVIDENCE – Many of the qualities of life that make Rhode Island such a great place to live will converge this coming weekend. For three days, an expected 30,000 visitors will throng the sold out Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park, drawn by an intoxicating mix of music, sea and artistry.

And, on Saturday morning, July 29, hundreds of swimmers and kayakers will traverse the waters of Narragansett Bay between Newport and Jamestown, part of the 41st annual Save The Bay Swim, an event that celebrates the continued renaissance of Narragansett Bay.

The two events celebrate the natural treasure that Narragansett Bay has become for Rhode Island, having been rescued from its days as an open sewer in the 1960s and 1970s through committed advocacy, academic research and citizen activism.

In many ways, Narragansett Bay has emerged as the state’s 40th community, connecting all the other 39 cities and towns in a long-term interrelationship around the economy, tourism and sustainability.

But, beneath the glittering surface of its waters, all is not well with the Bay, according to Jonathan Stone, the executive director of Save The Bay. The threats of climate change’s impacts are becoming much more noticeable – including the recent rapid decline in eelgrass, a key component in protecting the Bay’s resilience. Other symptoms include:

The lobster population has crashed; the reasons why are not clear. “One of the theories is that they are migrating north to colder water,” Stone said. There is also an increase in the prevalence of common shell diseases that can damage the viability of the lobster population, Stone added.

A potential third variable may be the predator and prey relationship among species, with lobsters being affected by over-fishing and the decline of menhaden; the striped bass, when they cannot find menhaden, may be eating young lobsters, according to Stone.

Concerns about water quality in the Bay, focused on rising bacteria levels and nitrogen levels, require constant vigilance, according to Stone. The bacteria levels are triggered by human waste or animal waste entering the Bay, often a result of sewage treatment overflows following heavy rains. These events often result in beach closings and shellfish beds closings. To remedy this, Stone urged the completion of Phase Three of the Narragansett Bay Commission’s sewage overflow system.

In very dry summers, Stone continued, there is a close correlation between algae blooms, low oxygen levels, and large rain events, which result in large untreated storm runoffs entering the Bay, increasing the nitrogen loads.

A third threat is that the environment appears to have drifted “off the radar screen” for many of Rhode Island’s elected leaders, according to Stone. The budget for enforcement has eroded, year after year. “The environment vs. the economy and jobs is a false dichotomy,” Stone said. What is needed is a kind of political reawakening to the looming threats.

The Newport Folk Festival [and the upcoming Newport Jazz Festival] with the Save The Bay Swim celebrate the accomplishments; taken together with Stone’s warnings of the looming threats, they provide the context for a new hire by Brown University who is no stranger to the environmental conversation. And, with that hire, Brown has signaled its intent to put more focus on creating a more holistic and engaged approach to a broader definition of the innovation ecosystem, pushing the school to become more outward looking in its approach.

Breaking down the silos
H. Curtis “Curt” Spalding recently joined the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society as a Professor of the Practice in Environment and Society

His appointment, Spalding told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview, is an example of Brown University seeking to become more “outward facing” in the way that it engages it students and faculty in both research and community involvement.

“My role is to help the Institute for Environment and Society become more outward facing and engaged in real-world challenges,” Spalding said. “We are a young program; we’re only three years old.”

Speaking from the unassuming second-floor offices of the Institute on Angell Street, with the front yard covered with raised growing beds, Spalding described the task ahead of him as an effort to try “to break down the silos” and engage with affiliated researchers across the Brown community.

“A holistic, system-level thinking is what needs to be encouraged and brought to the conversation,” Spalding said, different from the past way of looking at environmental problems purely according to environmental factors.

For example, Spalding continued, when people think about water pollution problems, the way it is measured is whether or not you meet a water quality standard. “But what does a water quality standard really mean to the community and the society at large?” he asked. “That’s a big question – how you value the ecosystem.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Curt Spalding, taking on a new role as a professor at Brown University, and his analysis of how a more holistic approach can create community and political engagement that focuses on sustainability.

ConvergenceRI: How do you see the world in Rhode Island from an environmental perspective and its relationship to the broader innovation ecosystem? Where do we need to go?
That’s a good question. I was serving at the regional level with EPA, so I have a pretty good handle on what is happening in the six New England states – of who is pushing forward on innovation around environmental challenges.

ConvergenceRI: What do you mean by “struggling?”
I spent much of my time working on these issues out of the EPA’s regional office in Boston. We had plenty of time to go to places such as Cambridge, and to visit green labs and incubators and accelerator hubs that go with the innovation economy. I saw rich, strong efforts in innovation around energy production, around water pollution issues, that sort of thing.

It’s not that Rhode Island isn’t in the game. They are definitely in the game. But relative to the innovation engine that is to our north, it is not on a pace with that, and there’s work that needs to be done to get to that [level].

I don’t think that anyone here would say anything different. Rhode Island is starting to build its innovation economy, such as with the Wexford project.

But Rhode Island is behind, relative to the Commonwealth, and in some ways, behind Vermont, where the issues of sustainability and energy self-sufficiency are very imbedded now in that state.

It is a challenge now for Rhode Island just to keep up.

ConvergenceRI: Where do you see Rhode Island, not just on building out its innovation ecosystem in terms of sustainability, but in how it is protecting its environmental resources and public health?
That’s a different question. Every state has its strengths. I would say that Rhode Island’s biggest challenge is that it is still pretty siloed in its environmental work.

But it has also done great things. I talk with people a lot around the country on how Rhode Island addressed its water pollution problems quite aggressively, and how it has produced real results. Narragansett Bay is now on a par with any urbanized watershed within the United States in terms of recovery.

I think Rhode Island’s [past] environmental record is relatively strong. But I think there are challenges when it looks at the future and issues of sustainability and trying to deal with storm water – some of what we call the “next generation” challenges.

Rhode Island is not quite as forward leaning as some of its neighboring states on getting out [in front] on those issues. But the track record of accomplishment is as good as anywhere, really.

ConvergenceRI: Is there a kind of cognitive dissonance when it comes to protecting public health from toxic contamination and the efforts to attract new investments by large corporations? For instance, in Massachusetts, GE chose to locate is new corporate headquarters in Boston at the same time it has been fighting a proposed settlement with PCB contamination in Pittsfield.
The GE decision to [relocate] its corporate headquarters in Boston was clearly not connected to the Housatonic matter at all.

I worked very hard on the Housatonic River [cleanup] during my tenure with EPA. What I’ve learned over the years on Superfund work, in toxic cleanup work, is that each site is very local.

What might be acceptable in one community – what might work as a remediation strategy in one community – may be difficult in another.

That’s the way the program works, the way we want it to work. We spent a lot of time and worked very hard to engage local residents and communities [to determine] what would work for them. The context is often different.

Take GE in Pittsfield. There were complications around that that were more than just about PCBs. It was a lot about GE leaving Pittsfield high and dry. Lots of jobs were lost, and there was lots of resentment.

It was very much analogous to why people are so upset with manufacturing leaving the country, which has brought on the political dynamic that we’re dealing with today.

There was a little of that in Pittsfield, so that context was very challenging, very very challenging.

Why did they go to Massachusetts [to locate their new headquarters]?

I think they looked at Boston and the skills set in Boston that the workforce has, the innovation capability there, as paramount to their corporate strategy.

Cleaning up a site in Pittsfield was a completely different matter than where they are going to build their corporate headquarters and what kind of company do they want to build moving forward.

At the end of the day, I think there will be an agreement struck to clean up the Housatonic. The disagreements there are challenging; it’s a very challenging clean up. And, it’s very complicated because of the way that the community there looks at the project.

So, that settlement was just a one-off, really. When you look at Superfund sites in general, in Rhode Island, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, you want to maintain some consistency in equity across the program.

Wealthy communities should not get a billion-dollar cleanup and a poorer community should not get a million-dollar cleanup. There should be a balance, and that’s part of what we tired to do when I was at EPA.

And, to make sure that the public health is protected, and that [there is] a clean-up schedule that works and is reasonable for everybody.

ConvergenceRI: What’s your strategy for breaking down silos?
At Brown?

ConvergenceRI: Not just at Brown, but in Rhode Island?
We need to develop a holistic [approach] that we to encourage and brought to the conversation. The way we looked at environmental problems [in the past] was purely as [involving] environmental factors. We didn’t look at the broad health risks over time and what we’re paying for prison costs and what we’re paying for health care costs.

That is something we should have been doing a long time ago. I’m hopeful that the research work here at Brown and at other institutions can make those connections.

When people think about water pollutions problems, the way it is measured is whether or not you meet a water quality standard. But what does a water quality standard really mean to the community and the society at large?

That’s a big question. We spent some time at the EPA [wrestling with] how you value the ecosystem and what the value of the ecosystem means to life in the community. To me, that’s a fundamental question, when you talk about sustainability and how does the environment sustain life, and the quality of lives want to lead.

That’s why this is called the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. Our priority mission is to educate students into making those connections and then to help educate the world.

Certainly, in our corner of the world here in Rhode Island, the goal is to help make those connections so that these things are thought about more holistically.

That’s an enormous task, because of the way that everything’s been structured when it comes to law in this country.

It’s very siloed. You have the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Resource Conversation and Recovery Act, the Superfund law – they are all very siloed. They have different standards, different ways of looking at problems. It was an enormous challenge [for me] as an [EPA] regional administrator when these laws don’t match.

That’s what this institute can be about.

ConvergenceRI: I recently had a conversation with Jonathan Stone, the executive director at Save The Bay, and the challenge of reawakening a sense of environmental activism when it came to Narragansett Bay and the idea of reframing the view of the Bay as the 40th community in Rhode Island. Do you think such a reframe would be helpful?
I was in that job for a long time, for 18 years. There are lots of ways to look at the value of the Bay. How you talk about that value [reflects] the time you were there.

Back in 1980, the Bay was highly polluted, there was a lot of outrage about this condition, a lot of conversation about how life in the Bay was being exterminated by the pollution. So it was a different conversation; it was about outrage.

As investments have been made, the Bay has gotten cleaner, and its value has been restored to some degree, in terms of fishing and aquaculture. Real estate values are higher and swimming is more improved.

As a result, you start to talk about the Bay in different ways, in terms of tourism resources and the value of the greater economy.

Because the quality of the Bay is better than it’s been in 100 years, it’s easy to start to take for granted the improve quality it has today. So, Jonathan is probably wrestling with different ways to talk about the [threats].

As always, the challenge is how do you make transparent to people the relationship to those resources, because we are not taught it – or at least we didn’t use to be.

ConvergenceRI: What does that mean?
The environmental education movement in Rhode Island is one of the great successes in the state. [We went from educating] 500 kids a year to 15,000 kids a year; R.I Audubon and the Zoo did the same thing.

I’m guessing that the children in Rhode Island are getting experiential environmental education at a much higher level than had been historically.

But less than 10 years ago, those connections were not being taught, the education system siloed science, siloed social sciences, and didn’t really explicitly teach how the Earth supports your life and your well-being. That contrasts to our friends who are members of New England tribes, who were taught by their elders and by their mentors, from the day they began to walk to the day that they were honored in their death. This connection is part of their culture; it’s not part of ours yet. I think that’s why we struggle so much with climate change.

ConvergenceRI: How would you change what we do to educate legislators?
You’re asking a guy who has my degrees in public administration and political science.

What is true about Rhode Island is that it has got a fairly weak executive branch constitutionally; it has a strong legislature.

I don’t care where the legislature is – in Washington, in New York, in Illinois or Rhode Island, legislatures tend to operate on a very short-term horizon. They just want to get through that budget cycle. They are very poor as an institution in looking long term.

Protecting the environment is fundamentally a long-term issues; sustainability is fundamentally a long-term issue.

So, when you are back up against the wall, like this year, the legislature is going to start looking for money – at funds that help sustain your future, longer term, not tomorrow, but in 10 years from now.

The legislature just wants to get out the room with the least amount of political damage as they cope with the deficit.

Over and over again, in my history, which is now over 30 years watching legislatures do their [budget] work, when that happens, there is great danger to restricted funds or any funds set up being raided.

Long-term investments are hard to do, whether it is schools, universities or the environment.

ConvergenceRI: How can your work at Brown seek to change that equation, to reconfigure resources, to invest in the innovation ecosystem?
I’ll share some of my current thinking. One of the long-term challenges that this state has is that it’s not facing as aggressively as it might is sustainability.

If you look at the map we built at EPA, which is called “resilience and adaptation” in New England, you’ll see that resilience and adaptation are going on in communities all across the region.

Moving forward, is it possible for Brown to begin to assemble information about how climate change is affecting our state, our communities, and our own well-being? And, can we communicate that in ways that are accessible and transparent?

We have students who are more capable than any other generation in using social media tools and personal devices to get that information out.

I think there’s a great opportunity with big data to find ways to communicate that information. For Brown, it’s an historic opportunity.

Now, when there is a better understanding, how will the system react, and how will the politicians react? That remains to be seen. But, I think if you can provide a good example, and show Waterplace Park going under water 30 times a year because of rising sea level tides, [it can lead to change.]

I became aware of a project just a couple of days ago, something called Shave The Peak. If you can communicate to people that their energy system in the region is all about peak demand, and if we can shave that peak, we can reduce the emissions from very dirty oil burners and coal burners and all those standby units that make our air more polluted, causing real immediate public health issues on ozone days, if we can communicate those connections in ways that historically we have never been able to do, by building documents and videos that communicators can use, such as weather people and others, I think there is a great opportunity.

And, I think that is what Brown University President Christina Paxson is talking about when she talks about investing in translational studies, broadly defined. If you can take big data, translate it and communicate it, that’s something that this place should be able to do well.


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