Wednesday, March 30, 2016

From Streams to Marshes to Dunes


By Wenley Ferguson, Director of Habitat Restoration

Spring came early this year making late winter field feel more like May. The plants and animals followed the cue. Marsh grasses were turning green in March and herring returned to some spawning streams at the end of February! This month, we have been busy in streams, salt marshes and beaches, working to restore these habitats before the spawning and growing seasons are in full swing.

At Mussachuck Creek in Barrington, part of the stream had become impassable to river herring (also known as alewives and buckeyes) during their migration from Narragansett Bay up to Brickyard Pond where they spawn each spring. Over the last ten years or more many large trees had fallen into the stream, often breaking from the weight of the invasive vine, bittersweet.

The challenge we had, how can the trees be removed without damaging the steam channel and the bank? The answer, a piece of equipment called a forwarder with a grapple that resembles a truck with massive tires and a large arm that can pick up and cut huge trees without even touching the water below. Partnering with the Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Country Club, Save The Bay wrote a grant and a permit on behalf of the partners and received funding from the Coastal Resources Management Council’s Habitat Restoration Trust Fund to hire a tree removal company. Northern Tree Service had such a piece of equipment and a skilled staff to operate it. In just one morning 15 trees that had fallen in the stream were removed and the water started flowing freely. The timing was ideal since the herring returned early. Now the adult herring will have a clear path to their spawning grounds this spring and even more importantly, the juveniles will be able to swim downstream in the fall to the Bay and ocean to begin the cycle again.

At Jacobs Point salt marsh bordering the East Bay Bike Path in Warren, we used not as large of piece of equipment to continue a 10-year effort to restore the marsh and help it adapt to accelerated sea level rise. The equipment was an excavator, specifically designed to be able to work in a marsh without getting stuck and retrofitted with wide, wooden tracks to displace its weight. Al Gettman, DEM’s Mosquito Abatement Coordinator, endearingly calls this excavator “Woody” after the Toy Story character. Woody with Al at the controls, dug shallow creeks to drain water trapped on the marsh surface. In areas too unstable for Woody, volunteers from Save The Bay and the Warren Land Conservation Trust dug by creeks by hand.

Many ask, it’s a marsh, isn’t it supposed to have water on it? Even though marshes can tolerate being flooded with salt water regularly, the marsh plants become stunted or die when water is trapped for long periods of time. These shallow pools also become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, since the pools are too shallow for fish that eat mosquito larvae. Between Woody and the shovel wielding volunteers, we dug around 900 feet of shallow creeks. Our goal is for the marsh to recolonize with plants and for the mosquitoes breeding areas to be reduced.

The month of March is coming to a close with the planting about 15,000 beach grass plants at 5 sites around the Bay in partnership with RISD, the towns of Barrington and Newport, and US Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The beach grass planting projects have a wide range of goals from restoring coastal dune habitat to reducing flooding of low lying roads and parking areas during storms and moon tides. Beach grass is planted in the early spring when there is more moisture in the dunes to help the grass become established. Even though 15,000 plants seems like a large undertaking, the plantings go quite quickly thanks to a diverse crew of planters from 3rd graders from Pell Elementary School in Newport, 5th graders from Rhodes ES in Cranston, high school students from Mt. Hope High in Bristol and Rogers High in Newport and Girl Scouts from Newport along with our dedicated network of local volunteers.