QUONOCHONTAUG — It took a legion of partners and a lot of money to complete Phase One of the Quonnie salt pond dredging project, and most of the partners were on hand at the state boat launch on Wednesday morning for the official celebration.

Salt ponds benefit coastal communities in many ways, serving as habitat for fish, shellfish and birds and providing recreational opportunities and protection from coastal storms.

The objective of the project was to dredge the breachway, improving the flow of water and water quality in the pond. The dredged sediment was used on-site to build up the salt marsh, which has been subsiding — effectively drowning in place. 

Wenley Ferguson, Save The Bay’s director of habitat restoration, said the project, which follows a similar effort at the Ninigret salt pond, is the first initiative in the Northeast involving dredged sediment placement. If the effort is successful, it could be used as a model for salt marsh restorations in other coastal states.

“Lots of people are looking to us in southern Rhode Island to see how these projects turn out,” she said.

Caitlin Chaffee, policy analyst with the state Coastal Resources Management Council, managed the three-month dredging project, which began last November and involved a collaboration between numerous federal, state and local governments and agencies, environmental groups, charitable foundations and local businesses and citizens.

“All the design and monitoring and permitting and construction, all these different pieces have to come together for this to work, and so it’s nice to have everybody gathered here so we can show our appreciation,” she said.

Most of the $2 million for the first phase of the work came from a $980,000 coastal resilience grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Charlestown contributed $450,000 and private organizations and individuals from Charlestown and Westerly raised $350,000. Other partners in the project are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and Save The Bay.

The Salt Ponds Coalition coordinated the private fundraising effort, which included the Weekapaug Foundation for Conservation, the Weekapaug Yacht Club, the Shelter Harbor Conservation Society, the Ocean House Marina, the Weekapaug Inn and the Westerly Yacht Club. Several individual donors also contributed. 

Rhode Island's U.S. senators, the Democrats Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, attended Wednesday's celebration.

Reed called attention to the vulnerability of Rhode Island's coastal areas. “Rising ocean waters, the changing temperature of the ocean, all those things have tremendous effects on Rhode Island,” he said. “Our first line of defense are the salt ponds, the marshes, the natural protections that we have.”

Whitehouse described the restoration project as an experiment and an effort to anticipate threats to the coastline.

“We know that things are going to get really strange in the years ahead and a lot of what Rhode Islanders think of as their shoreline right now is at risk,” he said. “We need to prepare for that and we also need to figure out how to deal with it as best we can so that we preserve what we can, while we can.”

The CRMC is the lead agency on the project. Executive Director Grover Fugate said the pace of shoreline change in Rhode Island was accelerating.

“What we’re seeing happening to our marshes today is astounding, as a person who has studied this for quite a while, because we’re seeing the time scales accelerate on us in terms of these changes that we’re seeing,” he said. “Our marshes in this state are incredibly threatened and it’s great to celebrate this work that we’re doing today, but we’ve got a lot more work to do.”

Patricia Montanio, NOAA’s director of habitat conservation, said the Quonnie restoration project would have multiple benefits.

“Coastal restoration can help communities through flood protection, through storm surge protection, through improving water quality,” she said. “It can help economies through enhanced commercial fishing and enhanced recreational opportunities, and, of course, it helps the fish and wildlife in the area."

Representing Charlestown were Town Council member Bonnie Van Slyke, Town Administrator Mark S. Stankiewicz, and Budget Commission Chair Richard Sartor, who also serves as vice president of the Salt Ponds Coalition. Sartor said the town has not only supported the salt marsh restoration projects, it has also been increasing its local capacity to deal with coastal climate issues.

“The people who live here are the ones who are going to have to live with all of these impacts,” he said. “ What Charlestown has created in addition to some funding is the ability to deal locally with some of those issues. We have also created a staff that has the capacity to deal with scientific issues in matters of ecology, economy and environmental issues.”

Andrew Timmis, of J.F. Brennan, the Wisconsin-based contractor responsible for the dredging at both Ninigret and Quonnie ponds, said he had appreciated being able to see the dredged sediment returned to the marsh.

“As a dredging contractor, usually the stuff we pick up we put away somewhere, bury it, it’s hazardous or something else,” he said. “In this case, you get to see what was done, so it’s really nice.”

The second phase of the project will involve reestablishing vegetation, such as marsh grasses, on the newly restored marsh. The effort will be led by Ferguson. “Adapting to sea level rise and the rapidly degrading conditions that we have been witnessing over the last decade of our region’s salt marshes, it clearly requires cooperation from every level of government and most importantly, the community,” she said.

Ferguson’s team of volunteers, which includes Chariho students who grew the marsh grasses from seeds collected locally, will begin the planting soon after Memorial Day.

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