Background & Origins of Restoration
|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
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.
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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This site was created through a partnership
Coastal Resources Management Council
Narragansett Bay Estuary Program
Save The Bay®