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Background & Origins of Restoration

A coastal marsh on the Palmer River
A coastal marsh on the Palmer River
Courtesy: Save The Bay

Rhode Island is home to an array of coastal habitats, including salt marshes, seagrass beds, and river systems. These habitats support a wide variety of fish and wildlife, contribute greatly to the state's biological integrity and diversity, and help support the state's economy: 75 million dollars in commercial fishery landings; a recreational fishery valued at 150 million dollars; and a tourism and outdoor recreation industry valued at two billion dollars on Narragansett Bay alone.

Despite their exceptional importance and value, Rhode Island's coastal habitats have suffered from several hundred years of human impacts – development activities that have destroyed or degraded many habitats (see Historical Overview for more details). Salt marshes have been diked, ditched, and filled. More than 500 dams have been built on our rivers. Seagrass beds have succumbed to coastal development and declines in water quality.

In recent decades, technologies have emerged to restore productivity to degraded or destroyed coastal habitats. Scientists, engineers, and community groups have begun working with federal, state and local governments to restore salt marshes, re-establish seagrass beds, and restore fish passage to rivers.

Origins of Restoration
Rhode Islanders have been attempting to restore coastal habitat nearly as long as we have been altering it. In 1718, a dam was built across the mouth of the Blackstone River in what is now downtown Pawtucket, preventing salmon, shad, and herring from making their annual migration upstream (Buckley and Nixon 2001). Soon thereafter, William Sargent deepened a natural overflow channel to the west of the dam, allowing the fish to bypass the obstruction and make their way into the watershed to spawn. Anecdotal historical evidence suggests that Sargent's Trench, as it became known, allowed fish to ascend the Blackstone until the late 1700s, when mill sites became so valuable that it was developed for water-power (Buckley and Nixon 2001).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, wooden fish ladders were used in New England to allow herring to pass over dams. But clearly, industrial uses of rivers took priority over the needs of fish. During this period and through World War II, Rhode Island's coastal habitats were destroyed on a grand scale. Rivers were dammed and polluted, marshes were filled for construction, and seagrass beds were dredged for harbors and channels.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the first wave of modern environmental legislation slowed the pace of destruction. Among these were the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Rhode Island Wetlands Act, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Act, and others. These laws greatly reduced the pollution of Rhode Island's air and water and regulated activities with the potential to harm habitats, such as the filling of wetlands, coastal construction, and the use of pesticides.

As early as 1950, Congress, recognizing that habitat loss and overfishing were causing declines in recreational fish species, passed the Sportfish Restoration Act. The Act provided funding for restoration and management of fisheries and fish habitat, and led to significant improvements in the technology of fish passage. Most of the fish ladders now operating in Rhode Island were built with Sportfish Restoration Act funds, which continue to support restoration and management of the state's recreational fisheries.

The Sportfish Restoration Act presaged the second wave of environmental legislation in the 1980s and early 1990s that focused on restoring historic damage to the environment. Superfund, which mandated the clean-up of contaminated sites, also included provisions for restoration of natural resources. Likewise, the Oil Pollution Act provided for the restoration of habitats damaged by oil spills. The Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act funded the restoration of coastal wetlands in Louisiana.

The wetlands mitigation provisions of the Clean Water Act and the first Bush Administration's no net loss of wetlands policy provided further impetus for wetland restoration. The National Estuary Programs identified habitat loss as an issue common to estuaries nationwide and the Water Resources Development Act authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to undertake environmental restoration projects. As recently as 2000, Congress passed the Clean Water and Estuaries Act, which authorized new federal funds for the restoration of coastal habitats. The late Senator John H. Chafee of Rhode Island was largely responsible for development and passage of this legislation.

Together, these primarily federal laws and programs established a mandate and funding for state and federal agencies to restore coastal habitats. By the early 1990's, coastal habitat restoration projects were underway in a number of Northeastern states. Many, if not most, of these projects were undertaken as partnerships with state and federal agencies providing much of the funding: universities often provided scientific expertise; community and environmental groups provided coordination and volunteer involvement; and municipal public-works departments and private contractors handled construction.

References

Buckley, B., and S.W. Nixon. 2001. An Historical Assessment of Anadromous Fish in the Blackstone River. Final Report to the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission, and Trout Unlimited. University of Rhode Island, Narragansett, Rhode Island.

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Project Partner web pages - RIHRT, CRMC, NBEP, STB

This site was created through a partnership of the:

Coastal Resources Management Council
Narragansett Bay Estuary Program
Save The Bay®