Thursday, May 28, 2015

Adapting to Sea Level Rise, One Marsh at a Time

By Wenley Ferguson, director of habitat restoration

Walkers and cyclists on the East Bay Bike path who braved the cold temperatures in late March observed first-hand Save The Bay’s latest efforts to adapt to sea level rise in a marsh known as Jacobs Point in Warren. Jacobs Point is one of the largest marshes in the East Bay, and since the late 1990s, in partnership with the Warren Land Conservation Trust, we’ve been working to restore its good health. One such project is the 2010 installation of new pipes under a dormant roadway that crosses the marsh to improve water flow through the marsh, allowing native marsh grasses to flourish and stunt the growth of an invasive plant that was jeopardizing the marsh ecosystem.

Still, in recent years, we have noticed new changes in the marsh, including ponded water and the spreading of dead zones in areas formerly covered by marsh grass. Similar conditions were documented statewide, in an assessment conducted by Save The Bay ecologists between 2012-2014. One of the causes of the degraded conditions of the Jacobs Point salt marsh, and other marshes around the state, is the increased rate of sea level rise over the last decade. Until recently, marshes throughout the region have been able to keep up with the rate of sea level by building elevation each year. But as the rate of sea level rise has increased, marshes are not able to keep pace, resulting in water becoming trapped on the marsh and the marsh literally drowning in place.

A low-ground-pressure excavator helps Save The Bay dig small creeks in the marshIn partnership with the Department of Environmental Management’s Mosquito Abatement Coordinator, we are using a specially designed low-ground-pressure excavator to dig small creeks to drain the impounded water off the marsh surface. This stagnant water not only can cause marsh plants to die off in just one growing season, it also creates ideal conditions for mosquitoes larvae. Draining the trapped water and connecting small creeks to larger creeks where fish live, has the added benefit of significantly reducing mosquito breeding habitat, which is good for humans, too. 
As those who pass by on the East Bay Bike Path know, our work at Jacobs Point is not done. Volunteers continue to dig by hand in areas of the marsh that are too wet and unstable for the excavator to access. We continue to extend the creeks into areas where standing water remains. As plants recolonize the areas that have drained, we monitor both the plant community and the water level throughout the growing season.

Helping our salt marshes and other coastal habitat adapt to changing climate conditions is going to be an ongoing process. These adaptation efforts at Jacobs Point, other marshes around Narragansett Bay and our salt ponds are a series of steps that Save The Bay is committed to continuing, to ensure that these highly productive marsh habitats, which play a critical role in the health of Narragansett Bay, can adapt to  the quickening pace of sea level rise.

Watch this video to learn more about why salt marsh restoration is so important to us.

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