Monitoring Sandy's Effect on Narragansett Bay
Flooded streets, washed-out docks and eroded beaches reflect not just the power of Sandy's storm-driven waves, but the decisions – both good and bad – made by the people who live along the shores of our ocean and Bay. "Barrier beaches naturally migrate," says Tom Kutcher, baykeeper for Save the Bay. "The waves will pick up the sand, carry it over the dunes and deposit it on the other side." But when structures and buildings are in the way, that process goes awry. Humans don't always take nature into account when deciding where to build and where to pave – and nature, in turn, tends to ignore the needs of us humans.
Kutcher says some of the good decisions we've made paid off for the Bay. Recent upgrades in infrastructure make it much less likely that we'll get massive overflows of raw sewage into the Bay during rainstorms. Nature also gave us a bit of luck – Sandy didn't bring us much rain, so effects from storm water runoff were minimal. But erosion along the shores dumped a lot of suspended solids into the Bay, and that means increased turbidity, says Kutcher, making it tough for sunlight to reach plants on the bottom. Those effects should naturally diminish within a week or two.
The storm also swept a lot of debris into the Bay, he says, which is not only unsightly and dangerous to boaters, but some of it can contaminate the water. Timbers from docks and piers treated with creosote, for example, are "incredibly toxic," Kutcher adds. CleanBays is already at work to clean up the shorelines. The nonprofit group, formerly known as Clean the Bay, reorganized earlier this year and brought in a new executive director, Captain Kent Dresser of Newport.
Wenley Ferguson, Save the Bay's restoration coordinator, says flooding events along the shores aren't limited to the big storms that get all the attention. Normal tidal cycles bring high tides of five feet or more to the Bay about five times a year. "We have to decide over the long term if we want to keep trying to mitigate these events," she says. Preventing construction close to the shore and restoring wetlands goes a long way toward making the inevitable storms and floods easier to weather.
Anyone who wants to volunteer to help with the cleanup from Sandy can contact either Save the Bay or CleanBays. And anyone who wants to help make those good decisions that will lead to a better Bay in the future can vote "Yes" for Questions 5 and 6 next week on Election Day. Question 5 will allocate funding for sewer-treatment upgrades that are critical to a healthy Bay ecosystem, and Question 6 will help to fund much-needed improvements in storm water management.
Photos courtesy of Tom Kutcher, Save The Bay Narragansett Baykeeper