The Journal ran a story Sunday on Rhode Island’s new efforts to deal with coastal erosion. It’s a decent piece, but it understresses a couple of important points and misses a few more.
First, the problem of shore erosion has been and will continue to be intensified by sea level rises pushed by global warming, which, yes, is caused by people. In fact, we might do well to skip the middle man and just say that climate change, like Soylent Green, is people. People are accelerating the erosion of Rhode Island’s shore. That approach would be perhaps uncomfortably blunt, but the ProJo is suspiciously tactful on the matter. Their article mentions rising sea levels and worsening storms as if these phenomena are happening for no reason at all.
Second, it’s important to note that the problem of shore erosion requires collective action. We’re talking about a threat to common property–property no one in Rhode Island can own privately. Sure, private property is in danger, too, but the site of the first damage and of the bulwarks against further damage will be the commonly-owned shore. Towards the end, the article has an interesting thing to say about the different incentives posed by slow erosion and big emergencies, such as hurricanes, but it leaves understated the importance of the property status of Rhode Island’s shore.
Then there a couple of things left entirely unsaid. Most important among them is a question: what does Rhode Island want to do with its life?
The impetus for the ProJo piece are the actions being taken by RI’s Coastal Resources Management Council to combat shore erosion, mainly a $1.3 million study that will lead to a Special Area Management Plan. Much of the article focuses on the technical solutions to shore erosion the study may discover, but more important are the values the study will bring to the fore–the values of the people who live around Narragansett Bay. What do they actually want out of the Bay? What do they want it to do?
Other people, in other places, have expressed quite clear values in their approach to caring for their shores. Last month, North Carolina infamously, madly, risibly drafted a bill that would require the state to ignore accelerated sea level rise in its shore management planning. When this brand of stupidity makes it to the level of a state legislature and becomes formalized in actual legislation, it transforms into something more than stupidity: it’s now a value. North Carolinians prefer posturing against anthropogenic climate change to having a beautiful, healthy shore. It’s a choice.
We’ll see what choices Rhode Islanders make as the CRMC study develops.
The other thing–a very important thing–the ProJo article misses is the strong evidence that SAMPs can work. After the 2003 fish kill in Greenwich Bay, CRMC convened some big meetings to figure out what could be done to prevent such calamities. One of the outcomes was the Greenwich Bay Special Area Management Plan.
This plan called for, among other things, sewer tie-ins for homes by the shore. The problem that needed to be addressed was that nitrates from septic tanks leech into the Bay where they feed huge algae blooms, which, after they blossom, die and decompose. The bacteria that feed on the decomposing algae suck up massive amounts of oxygen, and this process can cause hypoxia, low-oxygen events that asphyxiate fish.
There is evidence that the Greenwich Bay SAMP has cleaned up the Bay. Warwick delivered lots of sewer tie-ins, and, in 2010, DEM and the Department of Health found that a large patch of water in front of Apponaug Cove, a patch of water closed for almost two decades on account of bad fecal coliform bacteria counts, had become clean enough to open for shellfishing.
That’s serious. The bacterial standard for shellfishing is more stringent than that for drinking water. So, by caring for the poor menhaden who died in 2003, the people who live around Narragansett Bay made a thick bed of quahaugs available for commercial harvest in 2010. In mid-December of that year, several hundred guys crammed into the water in front of Apponaug Cove to make a day’s pay digging quahaugs.
The Bay is interconnected. It’s complex. But it can be managed properly. It can be well-kept. The important thing to recognize is, not only can Rhode Islanders’ values be reflected in the actions they take with regard to the Bay, but these values will be reflected, no matter what.