Making Way for Ocean State Marshes

Apr 10, 2024

The project is being led by Dr. Kenny Raposa and Jon Mitchell, the Reserve’s research and stewardship coordinators. Note: This photo was submitted to the National Estuaries Week Photo Contest in 2023.

Rhode Island is a small state with big problems. Along its 400+ miles of low lying coastline, many communities are grappling with rising seas and increased flooding, and some are in danger of being cut off from the mainland. The state’s iconic salt marshes, which historically have helped combat flooding and erosion, are also under stress, and in some cases, disappearing. With a grant made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), the Narragansett Bay Reserve is developing a strategy to help preserve marshes, and the benefits they provide, as conditions change. 

“This work depends on the marsh condition and its local context,” says Caitlin Chaffee, the Reserve’s manager. “In some cases, it makes sense to extend the lifespan of the marsh in place, but we also have to be realistic; if the marsh isn’t going to make it, should we try to find space for it to migrate to higher ground?”

The Reserve team is exploring the potential for three marshes on Prudence Island to move upland as sea levels rise. They are working with partners to consider the feasibility of different measures to facilitate this progress, such as rerouting coastal roads and removing infrastructure barriers. Ultimately, they will develop project designs and permit applications to move forward.

“Our goal is for this work to serve as an example for communities interested in exploring this option to protect their marshes,” says Chaffee. “Having it happen at our Reserve means we can continue to monitor the work and share what we learn so this strategy can be replicated elsewhere.”

The Reserve is well-positioned to advance this planning. It builds on their longstanding research, restoration, and monitoring programs, all of which support marsh management decisions and policy. For example, their vegetation monitoring data informs local restoration and enhancement initiatives, and they support a larger effort in the Reserve System to articulate pathways to advancing wetland migration planning.

Through its education and training programs, the Reserve is also poised to share the importance of this work—and the joy of experiencing a healthy marsh—with Rhode Island educators, students, residents, and visitors. 

“Helping everyone understand and be able to articulate the value of this work to the Narragansett Bay estuary and its communities is so important,” says Chaffee. “Rhode Island’s coastlines will continue to require robust federal funding and strong state and local support to address the many climate impacts we are experiencing.”

The Biden administration has set aside nearly $6 billion for coastal efforts nationally, with funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. This project was recommended by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as part of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law National Estuarine Research Reserve System Habitat Protection and Restoration Grants.

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BILMaking Way for Ocean State Marshes