Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bay-Friendly Living: Waterfowl feeding can foul our waters

By David Prescott, South County Coastkeeper

I have fond memories of my grandmother setting aside the stale bread for my sister and me to feed the birds and ducks whenever we came to visit. What I didn’t realize at my young age was the harm I was causing, both to the birds and to the local environment. In fact, in 2003, the state Department of Environmental Management passed a regulation making it illegal to feed waterfowl – and for good reason.

Waterfowl, such as Canada geese, swans and ducks, are wild animals. When humans feed them, we change their normal feeding behaviors, and they become increasingly dependent on humans for daily nutrition. What starts out as an enjoyable, and even nostalgic, experience quickly turns into a nuisance situation on a number of fronts.

One of the biggest, and perhaps most surprising, environmental effects of feeding birds is water pollution. A single adult goose can produce up to a pound of waste — yes, we’re talking poop here — every day. This waste contains high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which is harmful to humans.

As the waste builds up along the shoreline or in a local park, bacteria levels escalate. Rainwater washes the goose poop, and the build-up of bacteria, off the land and carries it to the nearest river, lake, stream, pond or beach, potentially sickening humans swimming or playing in this polluted water. High bacteria levels from goose poop also cause beach and shellfish closures in coastal waters.

Additionally, swans and geese also deposit their waste directly into the water, where they spend much of their time. Bird feces contain high amounts of nutrients that act as fertilizers in the water. This additional nutrient source in the water causes an explosion of algal growth that can deplete the water of oxygen other marine life needs to live and can cause smelly algae blooms that ruin the beach experience for humans.

Feeding waterfowl also affects our local habitats. These birds often congregate in areas where humans are likely to feed them, such as along shorelines and wetlands. When we’re not there to feed them, they are searching for vegetation for nutrition. While this is normal feeding behavior, the abnormally high number of waterfowl leads to overgrazing of shoreline vegetation, which can cause the edge of the bank to erode and become more susceptible to wave action and loss of its buffering properties.

Coastal salt marsh communities in particular are very vulnerable to the grazing effects of geese. Unlike other types of waterfowl, geese will feed not only on the above-ground portions of Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass) but the roots and rhizomes as well, often resulting in the complete removal of large swaths of marsh grass, particularly along the marsh edge. This makes the marsh even more vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels.

Waterfront homeowners can create and maintain a buffer of native vegetation that will not only help protect the shoreline edge, but will also keep waterfowl off of your property. Too often, homeowners mow their coastal buffer and then later complain about the swans and geese constantly pooping on their lawn.

A natural buffer is important for a number of reasons. Buffers infiltrate rainwater and help to filter and remove pollutants, such as fertilizers and animal poop, coming off the property. They provide valuable habitat for native wildlife. They protect the shoreline from coastal erosion. And finally, they discourage unwanted species, such as non-migratory Canada geese, from feeding on your lawn.

So next time you find yourself out dining along the water, having a picnic lunch at a park or enjoying a day at our spectacular beaches, think twice about sharing your leftovers with our winged friends. Our local waters and beaches will thank you.

Read it on Newport Daily News

Friday, August 14, 2015

How my eyes were opened last fall on International Coastal Cleanup Day

by Cindy Sabato

Last September, I did something I've never done before. I joined the Save The Bay's beach cleanup efforts for the International Coastal Cleanup. And it was pretty awesome. So awesome, in fact, that I now work for Save The Bay. But today I'm writing to reflect my experiences that Saturday morning a year ago, as an eager volunteer wanting to enjoy some sunshine and do some good at the same time.

Embarrassing fact: I've lived in the Ocean State for eight years, and have been to the beach only about a dozen times, and that's if we're counting walks along the wall at Narragansett Town Beach. So on that sunny September morning last year, heading down to Charlestown Breachway for the cleanup, I was both excited about actually going to the beach (even if I was wearing boots and a sweatshirt) and totally unprepared for the amount of trash and debris dotting the landscape.

The thing is, it's always there, the trash and debris, but we rarely notice it. Our eyes have been conditioned to overlook the tens of thousands of cigarette butts and plastic bottle caps that get compressed right into the ground and sand as we walk over them (they were everywhere, but I was so surprised at how hard I had to look to actually "see" them). Our nature is to gaze just beyond the unsightly plastic bottles and aluminum cans that have been blown into the nooks and crannies of rocks, fences, dunes, and other shoreline features. So ugly and disheartening is all this abuse by human hands, that we choose not to see it, even when we're in the midst of it, in favor of the sun glistening off the surface of the water, cormorants diving for a bite, children splashing in the shallows and beach grasses blowing in the breeze.

We don't see it, that is, until we're there to clean up it. And I was blown away, less by the strong winds that morning, than by the sheer amount of trash – bottles, cans, butts, caps, pen lids, plastic shards, juice box straws, plastic bags, towels, and fishing gear – that I found and dug out from on, under and amongst the big boulders that line the Charlestown Breachway inlet. 

Don't get me wrong. It was a fun day. Crazy fun. I was invigorated by the sunshine and fresh air. Inspired by the volume of people, families, sports teams and community groups that came to help. And proud that I was there doing something useful, something good for our community. But my experiences on that first cleanup also really opened my eyes to just how much our communities need to do to keep our beaches and shorelines free of all that trash.

We're the Ocean State, after all. Our livelihood depends on our ocean and its shoreline - for the economy, recreation, food, life's little pleasures. The 16,000+ pounds of trash collected in Rhode Island on International Coastal Cleanup day last year made a dent. Maybe a big one. Still, I can't help but think we wouldn't even need a day like that if we didn't put the trash there in the first place.

Save The Bay is now recruiting more than 2,000 volunteers to help with the 2015 International Coastal Cleanup on September 19, 2015. For information, and to register as a volunteer, visit:

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bay-Friendly Living: What causes those beach closures? We do

By Tom Kutcher, The Narragansett Baykeeper

I’m a surfer and I love the beach. So I hate it when the state Department of Health closes a beach to swimming. We’re about halfway through the beach season and we’ve lost a number of Aquidneck Island beach days to beach closures.

Atlantic Beach in Middletown has been closed three times, while Easton’s (First) Beach has been closed twice. Third Beach has been closed twice and Peabody’s Beach was closed seven days by two events. These beaches all were closed because of contamination by the kind of bacteria that can make you sick to your stomach, cause diarrhea and make you vomit. If the Department of Health doesn’t close the beaches, swimmers are at an unacceptable risk of contracting these dreadful symptoms. So, the agency closes the beaches to swimming, as they should.

Meanwhile, Melville Pond is off limits to all activities that might result in any water contact. There’s no swimming, fishing or even canoeing on the pond. It’s not safe for people or even pets. The culprit here is cyanobacteria, a toxic form of blue-green algae that’s also capable of causing stomach illness, not to mention skin rash, stinging eyes and even permanent liver damage if ingested. The cyanobacteria is caused by excessive nutrient pollution, usually stemming from fertilizers and waste.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Management announced it cyanobacteria also had been detected in Paradise Pond in Middletown.

So, why are these water resources polluted and how can this be fixed?

What we need to come to terms with is that these very different water resource ailments have one thing in common: the source of contamination. That source is us.

Through our daily activities, we inadvertently pollute our own precious water resources with the many pollutants we leave on the landscape that wash into the water. These include lawn and agricultural fertilizers, antifreeze and oil from our cars, pet waste and our own waste.

Much of the damage is done by water washing off streets and parking lots. Because the rainwater in the streets can’t be absorbed into the ground where the soil filters and treats most of the pollution, it simply washes the pollution off of these hard surfaces and into our waterways.

Another big contributor to water pollution is failing and inadequate septic systems, and cesspools that contaminate the groundwater that feeds into our rivers, ponds, reservoirs and beaches.

We never meant to do this. When we were building out our neighborhoods and business districts over decades and centuries, we didn’t know that cesspools and other inadequate means of expelling our waste would pollute our resources beyond utility. We didn’t realize that our cleared farmland would over-fertilize the adjacent surface waters. And, we didn’t expect that rain would carry velocity high enough to scour the pollution off of our lawns, driveways, streets and parking lots, and deposit it into our waterways.

But that’s exactly what happens. It’s happening on Aquidneck Island, in my home town of Wickford, across Rhode Island and around the world.

The good news is: This can all be fixed. In contrast to when the area was originally developed, we now understand the process of water pollution and how to treat it. The challenge is that it will take money, effort and a lot of political will to make it happen. Water needs to be diverted into vegetated soils rather than into rivers. Streets and parking lots need to be redesigned. And we need to be more careful about what we put onto the landscape. We need to pick up after our pets, use less lawn fertilizer and keep our cars leak-free. Some of our local youth have taken up the charge, for example, by designing and building rain gardens at Rogers High School in Newport to filter rainwater coming off the school roof and parking lots.

As adults, we can do that and more. We can create the political will to invest in the fixes that will make our beaches safe. We need to stress to our political leaders that clean water is important our health, recreation and quality of life.

Everyone knows that the beaches of Aquidneck Island are major economic drivers that bring hundreds of thousands of visitors per year to our communities in the summer months. Aquidneck Islanders and visitors alike use our ocean and Bay year round — for surfing, fishing, snorkeling, sailing and swimming.

We need to accept that fixing our water ailments won’t be free, or even cheap, but it’s an investment worth making. Clean water is an investment in our own selves and in our children, and is a year-round proposition. Please join our young stewards in taking the steps necessary to get this done.

Newport Daily News