The Seekonk is five miles of beautiful open water, alive with fish, eels, crabs, cormorants, osprey, herons, ducks, kingfishers, muskrats and many other forms of life. Though it’s right here in town, the Seekonk is “rewilding” after its de-industrialization: the wood pilings are rotting, sea walls collapsing, and the trees, vines, bushes and flowers are returning. Still, the Seekonk bears fascinating remnants of a storied industrial past.
Twice each day, millions of gallons of salty water swirl up from the ocean past Fox Point into the Seekonk, and thousands of gallons of fresh water fall from the Blackstone and Ten Mile Rivers (the latter falls over the dam at Omega pond, where the fish ladder project stands incomplete and seemingly abandoned). Other smaller creeks and sewer outlets pour in a lot or a little, depending on the rain.
Kayakers, people fishing on the banks and in small boats, and dozens of rowers from the Narragansett Boat Club and the Brown Boat House, motor and paddle their way up and down this five-mile playground of sun and wind and water. I’m one of the rowers.
So who’s to blame? Fertilizers and animal manure from agriculture and lawns in our neighborhoods and all the way up the Blackstone watershed supercharge the system with nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. This is a complex problem to beat, one that Save the Bay, Clean Water Action, the Narragansett Bay Commission, the University of Rhode Island and others have been toiling on for decades. There have been notable improvements, but fish kills show that there is still much to be done if we want a swimmable river in our lifetimes.
On a row after one of the “super moon” tides, I counted 120 plastic beverage containers floating on one bank in the two miles from the NBC boathouse to the mouth of the Providence River; that’s about 600 containers floating on the entire Seekonk on just one day.
These containers appear not to be from boaters, but float down gutters and drains, creeks, ditches and pipes into the river and the Bay. They are an aesthetic problem and can create choking hazards for wildlife (I’ve even seen a seal off the NBC boathouse). But the deeper problem they reflect is the one that caused the fish kill: Much of the runoff from our communities is going straight into the river. During the big rains, my own street near Blackstone Boulevard becomes a river, passing clogged street drains and straight into York Pond and the Seekonk.
The huge tunnels built by the Bay Commission to capture and allow slower treatment of stormwater runoff are already making a difference in Narragansett Bay water quality. But they are not enough. Rather, a whole new approach of decentralized stormwater management is needed.
We need a new “green infrastructure:” thousands more trees in the cities and suburbs upstream. (Trees slow down flooding substantially by catching rainwater. The larger they are, the greater their benefits.) We need “swales” and “rain gardens” which capture runoff from parking lots and roads, allowing it to absorb into the soil. When it’s time to repair light-duty parking areas, we need to replace them with “pervious pavers.” To make room for rain gardens and swales, we can embark on “depaving” some of our extra-wide streets, sidewalks and parking lots. “Green roofs” on flat-roofed buildings can absorb significant stormwater, and insulate.
All these investments in the green infrastructure are affordable, modular and create great numbers of obtainable jobs for those who need them here in Rhode Island. All have multiple benefits, improving our neighborhoods with better air quality (reducing asthma rates), improving community pride and substantially cooling our city for worsening heat waves.
So who’s hurting the Seekonk and the Bay? We all are. Who can turn them around? We all can. As an individual you can stop littering and clean up after others, scoop the poop, cut way back or eliminate fertilizers (and pesticides), depave and tree your property and your neighborhood. Support green infrastructure spending in your town and by the state: These investments pay themselves back in spades (pun intended).
This is election season, so ask all the candidates what they will do about stormwater and climate resilience in Rhode Island. Vote for the Seekonk, the Bay, and a resilient Rhode Island. And support the excellent groups we have that hold politicians accountable.
This article was originally published here.