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Narragansett Bay needs a new approach for restoration

The Narragansett Bay is New England’s largest estuary, covering over 150 square miles along the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Currently, this estuary is under threat from changing patterns of land use in New England, as well as climate change. New research led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst) has used a system-based approach, integrating data from climate change and land-use models, in order to identify workable interventions that could guide the Bay’s restoration.

“I grew up on Narragansett Bay, 1,500 feet from the water,” said study lead author Evan Ross, a senior lecturer in Environmental Conservation at UMass Amherst. “In 2003, I saw a massive fish kill, which resulted from nutrient runoff, and I’ve watched as Rhode Island has made significant investments in protecting the bay.” 

According to Ross and his co-author and department colleague Timothy Randhir, conservation efforts could be wasted if they do not take into account how climate change and development interact in threatening Narragansett Bay. Since the Bay is much more than just a body of water, being connected to the rivers and streams that flow into it, the land through which those rivers and streams flow, and the overall climate, a system-based approach is needed to identify what conservation strategies should be employed.

By using a SWAT model which makes predictions on watershed processes, and integrating them with data from climate change and land-use models, Ross and Randhir discovered that, due to climate change, surface runoff, nutrient loading, and streamflow will increase dramatically over the next 60 years. Thus, while local and state government can enact policies to help mitigate these effects, the problem is global in scope and will require the intervention of more than a single state.

Nevertheless, this model also shows that at least some of the worst effects of climate change can be curbed by local governments by changing land-use patterns in the greater Narragansett watershed, through expanding forest coverage, or investing in “green infrastructure,” such as rain gardens, living roofs, and vegetated drainage swells in the urban regions of the watershed.

Although it is unlikely that the Narragansett Bay will ever return to its past ecological glory, these findings offer environmental managers important tools to solve some of the most pressing problems the Bay faces.  “A model like ours can help us to identify what practices will have the most positive impact in the future,” Ross concluded.

The study is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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