Vegetation and volunteers are helping to revive Charlestown salt marsh

Vegetation and volunteers are helping to revive Charlestown salt marsh

The Westerly Sun

CHARLESTOWN — Working in two shifts over three days, groups of approximately 20 volunteers are planting 23,000 plugs of spartina grass in the sand at the Ninigret salt marsh. It’s a simple but demanding task that requires carefully digging each hole and inserting a tuft of grass.

Save The Bay’s Volunteer and Internship Coordinator July Lewis helped recruit the volunteers, who were greeted in the Charlestown Breachway parking lot and taken a short distance by boat to the work site.

“People love this kind of thing,” Lewis said. “They love to be outside, they love to do this hands-on thing. You get out there, you plant this marsh out, and you can see what you’ve done, and it’s beautiful and it helps the environment.”

The salt marsh elevation project began with the dredging of the breachway last winter, and most of the dredged sand was deposited on the marsh to raise it, making it less vulnerable to flooding. The work is funded by a $3 million Superstorm Sandy recovery grant from the federal Department of the Interior, $300,000 from the state, and in-kind donations. The town donated the services of GIS (geographic information system) coordinator Stephen McCandless, the Salt Ponds Coalition did outreach and solicited local input on the initiative and the Ocean House Marina donated a work boat to transport the grasses to the site.

Some of the spartina grass was grown from seeds collected at the site by students in the agriculture program at Chariho Tech. The rest, also grown from Ninigret seeds, was produced in New Jersey.

In addition to Save The Bay, several agencies are collaborating on the project. The Coastal Resources Management Council is the lead agency, working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council Policy Analyst Caitlin Chaffee has been managing the project.

“It’s just great to see so many volunteers and we’re lucky to be able to work with Save The Bay,” she said. “This whole effort is about building resiliency to future sea level rise and climate change and trying to preserve this whole barrier ecosystem and also protect the communities that are on the other side of the pond.”

Wenley Ferguson, director of habitat restoration for Save The Bay, is the project coordinator and explained that like many of Rhode Island’s 44 coastal salt marshes, the Ninigret marsh was being drowned by impounded water that flooded the marsh and did not drain away.

“Quite a bit of standing water. It kind of looked like this,” she said, showing an aerial photograph of the marsh. “That looks like a pretty little pool, but the pool was stagnant, it was very warm, very little fish use. Some of the deeper pools were covered in algae. So we were seeing this marsh die-off, pretty much throughout.”

Salt marsh grasses are adapted to withstand two high tides a day, but they can’t survive in standing water. When the grasses die, the marsh sinks and becomes a shallow water breeding ground for mosquitoes. Since last winter, the restoration team has been digging narrow creeks in the marsh to allow the fresh water to drain out.

“We’re creating this network of creeks to drain off the fresh water that’s impounded from the back barrier,” Ferguson said. “Even though it’s a barrier beach, there’s still a freshwater lens....It’s still hard sometimes to get the upper area to drain out, because it’s a lower elevation.”

Another challenge is keeping the sediment banks of the newly-dug creeks from washing away. Volunteers will plant grasses along the edges of the creeks to keep the sand from washing back in when it rains.

“That’s another goal of the planting is to try to stabilize those banks, because we really want to make sure that fresh water has the means to drain out,” Ferguson explained.

Salt Ponds Coalition President Art Ganz and Executive Director Alicia Eichinger were kneeling on the sand, planting grass plugs. Ganz said in addition to its involvement in breachway and salt marsh projects, the coalition performs ongoing water quality data tests which he hopes will show improved results now that the breachway has been dredged.

“We have our water-testing sampling going on in the pond, so as things improve with the breachway flushing, that will hopefully show up in our data,” he said. “And of course, this is a marvelous experiment to address sea level rise...It makes me feel good to see the younger generation taking an active part in this.”

Linda Dusseault was one of seven volunteers from Citizens Bank in Warwick.

“We were looking to work with Save The Bay, and the salt marsh planting looked like it would be a good opportunity,” she said. “We have a couple up from Virginia, too, so we thought it would be nice to do a team volunteer event.”

More spartina grass plugs are arriving next week and will be planted, followed by several other species of salt marsh plants that live further away from the water. Those include salt marsh hay, spike grass, black grass, seaside goldenrod and high tide bush. The plants are expected to arrive at the end of the month.

“We’ll be planting those in the high elevation areas,” Ferguson said.


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