Monday, August 13, 2018

Scenes along the Mattatuxet: A dam goes out; wildlife come in

by Kate McPherson, Riverkeeper

An American eel rests on the edge of the rock, covered in muck. I carefully climb down the rocks to the pool where it is resting, trying to remember if eels bite. I’m fairly certain they don’t, but I’m pretty sure they are slippery. What I know is that this eel needs my help getting out of the construction zone that is being actively dewatered so this dam can come down.

I rest one hand on what is left of the old spillway of the Shady Lea dam and reach for the eel, right behind the gills. I am not quick enough, and it swims under a large boulder, into deeper liquid muck. On my hands and knees reaching under the rock, with dark water swirling up my arm past my elbow as I feel around for the eel, I beam up at Ashlee Tyce and tell her without any irony at all that I love my job.

I recall my first visit to this stretch of the Mattatuxet River in North Kingstown, located about a mile and a half upstream of Gilbert Stuart’s birthplace on Carr Pond. It was my first week as Save The Bay's Riverkeeper, and on that particular day, I was meeting with the owner of Shady Lea Mill, neighbors, and engineers to facilitate the start of the second phase of dam removal.

The habitat behind Shady Lea mill is a secluded stretch of wide shallow river, with white oak and red maple trees shading the water on the southern bank and highbush blueberry, sweet pepperbush, and green briars tucked between the trunks. Cinnamon ferns nod at the riverbank edge and an occasional skunk cabbage crops up along the wooded bank. That warm spring afternoon was a chorus of birdsong. As we discussed backhoe access to the river, a blue-gray gnatcatcher flitted from branch to branch looking for small arthropods, a great crested flycatcher flamboyantly announced its presence from a nearby low branch, and warbling vireos sang at the pond edge. Deeper in the forest to the south, ovenbird, eastern towhee and black and white warbler sang. A pine warbler stopped to consider if the deciduous canopy would meet his nesting requirements as we considered the logistics of taking down this historic, but high-hazard, dam.

I suppose that warbler must have found a nice patch of white pines this summer, since it’s now mid-July and I haven't heard him sing since. The dam is now halfway out at Shady Lea, and will be replaced by four granite rock weirs over which the river will cascade down and fish will swim up. For the first time in 200 years, wildlife, including species that are not terribly mobile, will be free to move up and downstream.

This will mean changes to the wetland habitat upstream of the old dam, but change is constant in a river system, and already the Mattatuxet River is adapting. Seeds trapped in what was the mucky pond bottom have a chance at life and new plants have emerged. Deep areas previously hidden by the pond have been revealed and may provide new breeding habitat for wood frogs and spotted salamanders.

After my eel adventure, I walk upriver to what’s left of the old impoundment, where the water collected above the dam.The painted turtles and green frogs I’ve seen here won’t mind the changes to the river, for they are equally at home in permanent ponds and small rivers. I hike through some fragrant sweet pepperbush at the wetland edge, and the gray catbirds, irritated, glare and scold. I startle a musk turtle on the move! A rare treat, musk turtles are shy aquatic species that prefer slow moving muddy bottomed waters. This turtle is moving north into the deep marsh upstream.

Now that the dam is on its way out, this turtle’s offspring will be able to find their own habitat downriver to slow-moving muddy habitat in Carr’s pond. Opening up the river will hopefully mean anadromous fish—fish such as alewife and blueback herring, which spawn in freshwater rivers and return to the ocean—will be able to bring a new generation of fish in the waters behind Shady Lea mill. Observing the changes, I can’t help but feel optimistic.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Delight of the First Visit to the Aquarium

by Mia Chiappone, communications intern

Tuesday morning was bright, beautiful and warm, and I was going to spend it volunteering at the Save The Bay Exploration Center & Aquarium. Driving down Memorial Boulevard in Newport, R.I., looking out over the blue ocean and white sand at Easton’s Beach, I knew it was going to be a good day away from my busy work life. I knew this, because I had no idea what to expect—and I’ve learned the best things happen when you don’t expect them.
The location of the aquarium on Easton’s Beach is unreal. In between beautiful cliffs and positioned on the beach facing the ocean, I had no idea what this circular building was holding on the inside.
Octopuses? Sharks? Nemo?
No, this aquarium doesn’t contain tropical, bright fish (except a few that are swept up with the Gulf stream and cannot survive Rhode Island’s cold winters) or dolphins or penguins that are kept in tanks their whole lives. Instead, the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium exclusively features species native to Narragansett Bay. The critters are given to the aquarium by fishermen and scientists and are released within a year if they are healthy.
Having grown up in Rhode Island and being a huge ocean person, I was surprised to see so many species I'd never seen before and didn't even know existed right here in my own backyard. Did you know, for example, that those little golden pouches you often see washed up on the beach are mermaid purses—the egg sacks of baby little skates that will grow to the size of a steering wheel?
When I walked into the aquarium, I felt very welcomed by the volunteers and the manager, Adam Kovarsky. I looked around the front area and saw beautiful artwork and was eager to go tank to tank.
I was not expecting to ask as many questions as I did. A huge difference between the Save The Bay's cozy Exploration Center and Aquarium and other aquariums I have visited is the level of individual attention from the staff. I learned more here than at any other aquarium I’ve visited.
The animals ranged from tortoises and crabs to all sizes of fish, sharks and eels. And the best part? You can touch many of the creatures.
Visitors can pet critters in three touch tanks, each stationed with a volunteer docent to answer questions. The children around me were far braver than I was at picking up the spider crabs and touching the skates, although I did stay at the dogfish shark tank for about two hours petting the little guy who kept poking his head out of the water. I was intrigued by the two-foot, gray shark and wondered why he never went below the surface. I came to learn he was “spy hopping,” a reaction to all the vibrations in the room caused by our voices, our footsteps, and everything inbetween. The dogfish shark could even feel our heartbeats when our hands were in the water. Strong sensory receptors along the shark's sides sense these vibrations and stir an innate curiosity to visualize its surroundings above the water.
I had the best time, and I felt like one of the little children running around going tank to tank and asking a million questions about every creature. I also realized I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Many adults came in without kids to check out the creatures we all swim with in Narragansett Bay.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed

Contributed by the staff of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program

We’ve been asked: Isn’t the Bay saved already? The answer isn’t so cut-and-dry. In fact, the Bay is so much cleaner than it once was. And, it’s not as clean as it could, or should, be. What’s more, while many former threats, such as industrial factory waste, have been remedied, new and more complex threats are emerging. Skeptics may ask: how do we know?

Beginning in 2014, the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program brought together more than 50 environmental practi-tioners from universities, state and federal agencies, nonprofit and for-profit organizations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island to collaboratively produce the 2017 State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed report. This robust and well-rounded collective of experts gathered and analyzed the best available data and put together a comprehensive, 500-page technical report on the status and trends in 24 topic areas that describe the conditions of the Bay and watershed and the stressors that threaten them.

The findings in the 2017 State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed report offer a new and unique understanding of the changing conditions in this important region. The incredible value of the report is that agencies, organizations, and individuals can use this information in their decision-making to ensure that the benefits provided by the Bay and watershed are sustained and enhanced for future generations. 

The Good News 

The water in the Bay is getting cleaner. Over the past several decades, major investments in wastewater facilities and restrictions on harmful chemicals have paid off in a dramatic drop in pollution. Discharges of bacteria, often from human and animal waste, excessive nutrients that lead to insufficient oxygen for marine life, and such legacy toxic pollutants as metals, PCBs, and pesticides have declined.

Scientists are tracking changes in the ecosystem after recent reductions in pollution from wastewater treatment facilities. Scientists are looking at biology, chemistry, and physics to understand how nutrient reductions are impacting our ecosystem. Additionally, research is looking at the cause of lower dissolved oxygen concentrations and how the fish populations are changing. 

Conditions vary greatly among places in the Bay and watershed, generally improving with distance from urban areas. But, urbanized areas are expanding. This spreading of the human population has spurred changes in land use, including loss of forests, that negatively affect rivers and the Bay. Conditions in the Bay also improve with distance from the Providence, Fall River and other highly urbanized areas. 

Major Stressors Currently Threatening Progress 

Climate change shifts. Decades of scientific data show that local air and water temperatures have warmed, rainfall has increased in volume and intensity, and sea level has risen. These changes are already happening and will continue into the future. Rising temperatures and increased rainfall stresses local stormwater systems, negatively affects human health and may change the species that inhabit the Bay and freshwaters. By understanding these changes, we can make better decisions and implement better policies to help protect land, communities, and infrastructure.

Sea level rise is stressing low-lying areas— particularly developed areas where people live and work. Additionally, salt marshes are drowning in place and have little room to retreat to higher ground. Salt marshes play important roles in the ecosystem by providing shelter, nurseries, and feeding grounds for fish and shellfish and protection from storms and flooding for coastal communities. Sea level rise will bring more frequent flooding to low-lying coastal areas which could displace homes, roads and coastal habitats. 

Urbanization. Population has increased over the last 20 years. People are spreading out, moving to more rural areas. Urban areas are expanding at the expense of forested lands. Demands for infrastructure such as roads, waste management, and power lines have increased, and habitat has been fragmented. More urbanized areas mean more impervious surfaces such as roads and buildings which can lead to warmer temperatures, more polluted runoff into waterways, and less natural habitat for animals.

Degradation of water quality. Significant advances in stormwater management, wastewater infrastructure, and policies aimed at reducing pollution have improved water quality significantly. However, water quality is still under threat from emerging contaminants, polluted runoff and climate change. High nutrient levels lead to low dissolved oxygen, which threatens fish and shellfish and can cause significant loss of life. Additionally, emerging contaminants such as personal care products and medications have unknown impacts on the natural ecosystem. 

Looking Toward the Future 

The work does not stop here. We need continued monitoring to better understand the effects of nutrient and bacteria reductions on the Bay. Reducing nutrient pollution from Taunton River Estuary wastewater treatment facilities and from nonpoint sources will be crucial to the overall health of the Bay going forward. Finally, we need to enhance the watershed’s resiliency to climate change impacts. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Swimming for the Bay: Open Water Swimming Tips from Elizabeth Beisel

by Elizabeth Beisel

I am ecstatic to finally be a part of the Save The Bay open water Swim! I got my start in swimming simply because I grew up in the Ocean State and my parents wanted me to be safe in and around the local waters. The love I developed for Rhode Island waters turned into an Olympic swimming career and I couldn’t be more grateful for everything this state has provided me.

I am fortunate enough to now have a platform to give back to the state and bring awareness to the pollution and litter in and around our beaches, and that is why I am most excited to join Save The Bay this August 4 in their 42nd annual open water Swim. 

We, as Rhode Islanders, must protect our waters in order to preserve them for the generations to come. I was able to swim in Narragansett Bay my entire childhood because of the efforts of people who came before me. Now it is my turn to pay it forward. 

Join me on Saturday, Aug. 4, as we support Save The Bay’s efforts to make our Bay a swimmable and safe place for everyone, and follow these simple open water swimming tips.

1. Warm up. Waters can be especially cold up here in New England, but no matter what the temperature is during your race or swim, you always want to make sure your body is warm and loose before you start. If the event coordinators allow it, hop in the water for 10 minutes before the start and loosen up. This will help your body acclimate to the water and relax the muscles, which is huge for preventing injuries. If there is no warm-up allowed, do some stretching and get your heart rate up by jogging or doing a few jumping jacks. You will swim faster and your body will thank you for it.

2. Fueling. Chances are, you won’t be swimming with a water bottle attached to you during your event. Start hydrating your body a bit more a day or two before your swim to avoid dehydration. Eat something before your swim. If you can’t stomach a lot of food early in the morning, eat a high calorie bar or smoothie that is easy to digest and won’t make you feel too full. Food is our energy source and you definitely want to be fueled up before a grueling swim.

3. Equipment. If you are doing an open water swim, you want to be as comfortable and confident as possible in your gear. If you are wearing a wetsuit or a suit that might rub your skin, rub baby oil or Vaseline on your skin where chaffing might occur. This will decrease the chances of your skin being raw after the swim and will make the event itself much more enjoyable. I suggest wearing two layers of caps: first cap, then goggles on, then second cap. This will help your goggles stay on during the swim.

4. Sighting. This is a crucial part of open water swimming. Because you have no line on the bottom to follow, you must become comfortable with lifting your head straight ahead to see where you’re going. Practice this skill in the weeks prior to your event; it will make it easier on your neck come race time and you will be comfortable knowing how to spot your course. Be familiar with your course before you dive in for your swim so if you get separated from your pack, you are able to still swim calmly and confidently in the right direction. Make sure you have a good pair of goggles that won’t fog up or blur your vision.

5. Pace yourself. Open water swimming is never a sprint. Start off at a comfortable pace and slowly start picking it up as the swim goes on. Keep your heart rate steady and under control so that you finish the swim strong and feel good the entire time.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Homeschool is Cool on Narragansett Bay

by Rachael Lewin, communications intern, Save The Bay

Homeschooling began to grow in popularity in the 1970s when educational theorist John Holt advocated for the reform of public schools. Holt asked parents to consider schools without walls, where kids can learn at their own pace in their own environment. This experiential-based approach has grown significantly over the years and now more than 2 million U.S. children are being taught from home.

In 2008, Save The Bay added a new program, Homeschool is Cool, to its robust set of marine science environmental education courses. Once a month from September to May, children ages 6-14 meet for two-hour sessions to explore Narragansett Bay through its various creatures, watershed and habitats. Learning progress is tracked in journals that students use to take notes and draw pictures of their observations. All of Save The Bay’s education programs are linked to national science standards and Rhode Island’s grade span and grade learning expectations, making Homeschool is Cool a win for parent-teachers and students alike.

On a typical chilly day in February, some 25 children from kindergarten to third grade arrive at the Bay Center abuzz about the day’s activities. Educators have already been down to the dock to gather microscopic plankton from the Providence River, and the lesson starts with a primer on these tiny organisms. The students learn that plankton are the most abundant species in the Bay, and can range in size from miniscule to larger than a human. With older kids helping the younger ones, microscopes in the plankton lab at the Bay Center give these young marine scientists the chance to look at the different types of plankton up close, and then the students draw what they see in their observation journals.

Craft activities help reinforce the marine science lesson as students “make” a plankton out of Play-Doh and spaghetti. And since plankton float, rather than swim, in the water, the students are challenged to make spaghetti plankton that actually float. Contagious excitement fills the room as the students cheer and clap for the “plankton” that looked like they might actually float. In the end, spaghetti and Play-Doh prove to be less-than-buoyant and all the plankton eventually make their way to the bottom of the container.

“Programs like this are so great because they allow for my kids to have some real hands-on experience with the animals they’re reading and learning about. They come home eager to share what they learned and inspired to continue learning about the Bay and all the different aspects that make it so special,” said a mother of an excited third grader.

On a hazy March afternoon, homeschoolers and their families gather on the dock at Bowen’s Landing in Newport. After the group receives life jackets and safety guidelines, the excursion to look for seals begins. Before heading out to visit the seals at their favorite hangout spot, the educators introduce Sealia, Save The Bay’s life-size harbor seal model. On the outside, Sealia is simply a stuffed animal, but on the inside she is anatomically correct, with removable plush organs.

The educators break down the replica, explaining how the seals’ six inches of blubber along with a metabolic rate higher than land mammals, keeps them warm. The children learn that Narragansett Bay is an ideal location for seals’ winter vacationing because it is a safe place to rest, free from common predators, with a bounty of fish to eat.

As the boat makes it way to one of the seals’ favorite spots, Citing Rock, underneath the Newport Bridge, the educators talk about the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which helped raise the seal count in the Bay each winter from less than 20 to more than 500. Once the rock is in sight, the children swarm over to the side of the boat to catch the best view. The rocks seem to be overflowing with the majestic mammals, with a few bobbing around in the water seemingly approaching the boat to say hello.

The parents, marveling at the large number and beauty of the animals, stand back to allow the youngsters to be in front. Some hold up their phones to take pictures, some chat amongst themselves about the days activities. Homeschooling has become much more than just parents teaching their children at home. An aunt of one of the students pointed out that when enrolled in traditional schooling, weekends feel so hectic and busy, especially if sports and other extracurricular activities are a part of the schedule. Homeschooling, she said, allows for more family, time whether during the week or on the weekends, and that doing programs like this during the week eliminates the worry of weekend crowds. Parents work together to connect classroom lessons and experiences, creating communities of families who use this style of education and programs that make these experiences possible.

A father of one of the young adventurers shared his memories of struggling through school and constantly feeling behind his peers, so when it came time for his own kids to go to school, homeschooling was the answer. He and his wife quickly realized that this style of educating is a learning experience for the parents just as much as the kids, but seeing his son’s passion and excitement for learning makes the extra work worth it.

“Our homeschool programs further our mission to connect all students in Rhode Island to Narragansett Bay” said Grainne Conley, Save The Bay education program manager. The longest lasting memories come from experiences, fond memories of time with family or friends. So why not intertwine them with education? For more information on all of the programs Save The Bay offers, visit

Monday, July 9, 2018

Olympic Swimmer Elizabeth Beisel joins the Save The Bay Swim

by Katy Dorchies, marketing and graphics specialist

Swimmers and kayakers have myriad reasons for participating in Save The Bay’s annual Swim fundraiser—for some it’s about pushing their physical limits, while for others it’s simply about helping to protect the Bay. For Save The Bay’s first community Swim Ambassador, it’s all about giving back to the hometown waters that helped her reach her goals.

“I grew up on the beaches of Narragansett Bay, which is where I fell in love with the water,” said three-time Olympic medalist and Rhode Island native Elizabeth Beisel. “That love helped me accomplish my dreams to represent Rhode Island and the United States in the Olympics.”

As Save The Bay’s first Swim Ambassador, Beisel will offer welcoming remarks to participants in Newport on August 4 before jumping in the water and tackling the 1.7-nautical-mile swim challenge alongside other swimmers and kayakers. She will then present final awards from the Swim’s finish at Taylor Point in Jamestown.

Swimmers and fans, however, won’t have to wait until August to hear from Beisel. In the summer months leading up to the event, she will teach two youth swim clinics, share open-water swimming tips through Save The Bay’s blog and social media and participate in a takeover of Save The Bay’s Twitter account.

“I feel so fortunate to now have the chance to give back to the waters I learned to swim in, and that’s why I’m so excited to participate in the Save The Bay Swim,” said Beisel. “It’s so important to protect and restore our shorelines, beaches and Bay, and this is a perfect and seamless way for me to get involved. Let’s help save the Bay for the future Olympians of Rhode Island.”

Monday, July 2, 2018

A Love Affair with Landscape

by Lorena Pugh, painter

I have worked for years as a contemporary still life artist, rethinking the traditionally narrow definition of still life. I've enjoyed a comfortable degree of success, particularly for my four-foot pears wrapped in translucent tissue. Being a mid-career artist with national or international recognition, as I am, switching subject matter is a big deal after working for years to gain a following.

But it was love. A love affair that began two and a half years ago in a rural village in France, where I painted the beautiful landscape for seven weeks. Coming home to Narragansett Bay, I saw endless opportunities to grow as a landscape painter. I wanted to paint big waves and little coves, octopi and cormorants. I reached out to Save the Bay about some kind of collaboration for a show.

I thought of Save the Bay because in the summer of 1986, I did my first swim across Narragansett Bay. That was in the early days when kayaks and wetsuits weren’t ubiquitous. You dodged ores from 100+ rowboats and shivered in your skimpy suit, but it was wonderful, and I was hooked on open-water swimming. Over the years, I have developed a deep appreciation for all that Save the Bay does to make our Bay a good place to dive into.

Supporting Save the Bay with my paint strokes as well as my swim strokes meant we needed a venue, preferably a large space for those BIG waves I wanted to paint. The art gods smiled on us, because in a matter of weeks, the director of Dryden Gallery in Providence asked if I would like a solo show in their Grand Gallery—300 liner feet of wall space for paintings I had yet to create. I said yes, and grasping the enormity of what I just agreed to, nearly blacked out.

Dryden Gallery was more than happy to share proceeds with Save the Bay and so the biggest professional undertaking of my life began.

I started painting small plein air pieces in January 2017. Plein air painting is done outside, entirely at the sight, and over the past year and a half, I have relished spending time just looking and recording what I see along the shores, observing the changes in the water and air and the migration of life around the Bay.

Over the winter, I finally got those BIG, life-sized waves out of my head and onto canvas. One is 24 feet; the other is 16 feet. And a painting of a cloud reaches about 10 feet.
I bought a nautical map of Narragansett Bay and have put stickers in areas I have painted and in areas I want to paint. It will be included in the show so guests can find where each painting originated.

Now, with the good weather and only three months until the October 6th opening, I am heading back out to paint like the wind!

I will have close to 200 paintings by October, yet there are hundreds more I would love to paint. Our Bay is so rich with life and beauty; I hope you will come celebrate that with me at Dryden Gallery on October 6 for the benefit of Save The Bay and Narragansett Bay.

Monday, June 25, 2018

A Sandy Simulation

A Technology-Enhanced Sandbox Helps Rhode Island Youth Understand Watershed, Erosion and Topography

by Katy Dorchies, marketing and graphics specialist

In an effort to illuminate watershed issues, Save The Bay educators are breaking into the virtual world with their newest technological acquisition: the AR (augmented reality) Sandbox. The first of its kind in the state of Rhode Island, this hands-on exhibit and learning tool goes online in Save The Bay lessons starting this month. 

“The concept of a watershed is not necessarily as easy to understand as some of us think,” said Save The Bay Education Specialist Lauren Farnsworth. “The most important part of using the sandbox in our lessons is that students get in there and have the opportunity to manipulate the land, the rainfall, and really get an idea of how water flows.”

“We want students to understand that anything they do on land has the potential to affect all of their water resources, from drinking water and irrigation to recreation,” said Save The Bay Education Specialist Letty Hanson. 

The complete AR Sandbox structure includes a seven foot projector stand and a raised 3.5’ long, 2.5’ wide and 8” deep sandbox. A digital projector is affixed above the sandbox, directed towards the surface of the sand. While not in use, the equipment could appear simplistic; however, when educators turn the machine on, a new understanding of this exhibit comes to light.

Using a 3D camera and a video projector, the technology in the AR Sandbox works with the sculpted sand beneath it to produce a light-and color-based topographic overlay. As students shift the sand in the sandbox, the topographic map adjusts in real time, using a spectrum of colors and contour lines to bring the mock landscape below to life. The simulation adds bright blue pools to represent bodies of water at the sandbox’s lowest points, and those interacting with the sandbox can even use hand gestures under the projector to prompt a rainfall simulation.

“The AR Sandbox is an appealing blend of cool technology and get-your-hands-sandy learning,” said Save The Bay’s Lead Captain Eric Pfirrmann. “Students will be able to explore the concepts assisted by the technology, not driven by it.” 

The technology in the AR Sandbox was initially developed in 2013 as part of an open-source program at the University of California, Davis by researchers looking to improve the instruction of earth sciences. Save The Bay’s education staff first set their sights on acquiring the sandbox in 2016, and their efforts were finally realized when funding was acquired in late 2017.

Pfirrmann, assisted by volunteer Don DeLuca, began the physical construction of the sandbox in December 2017. By the following February, the sandbox was ready for its augmented reality technology. This final stage of preparation revealed the true complexity of the sandbox system, requiring the installation of three software packages, two types of hardware calibration, and the configuration of a Linux operating system. Now, the AR Sandbox is ready to be used by Save The Bay educators as they introduce students to watershed issues.

“It adds another layer of hands-on learning while helping students develop the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills that are so crucial to their success. This resource will help students develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills when it comes to their place in the watershed, and our program will encourage them to incorporate solutions to everyday challenges we face in the Narragansett Bay watershed,” said Save The Bay’s Education Director Bridget Kubis Prescott.

During lessons at the Bay Center, students will be asked to consider all of the forces at play within a watershed—from the pull of gravity and the consequences of rainfall to the complexity of tributaries—while gaining the vocabulary needed to describe coastal features. 

“Since Save The Bay’s mission is to protect and improve Narragansett Bay, teaching students about watersheds is crucial so that they can make informed decisions when it matters,” said Hanson.