By Todd McLeish
The late winter and early spring of 2010 was not a time for enjoying the outdoors in the Ocean State. In what may have been the most significant flooding Rhode Island has experienced in its recorded history, more than 20 inches of rain fell during a 38-day period, culminating in a storm that dropped eight inches on the state from March 29 to April 1. The effects were devastating, especially along the Pawtuxet River in Warwick and West Warwick, which rose to more than 15 feet above flood level. Dams and bridges were washed out, homes were destroyed, and businesses and infrastructure were severely damaged.
“The malls in Warwick were flooded because all the water in the Pawtuxet River is forced through a narrow channel between the malls where there are no wetlands, and it flowed over the banks and covered the parking lots,” recalled Scott Ruhren, Audubon’s senior director of conservation. “It was a mess.”
Audubon’s wildlife refuges weren’t spared. The trails at the Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge in Exeter were completely impassable – water was waist deep in places – as the brook overflowed its banks. The house at the Marion Eppley Wildlife Refuge in West Kingston became an island for several days as the surrounding flood plain swelled. And the 11-acre Carr Pond at the Maxwell Mays Wildlife Refuge in Coventry multiplied in size.
But none of the refuges were irreparably harmed. In fact, they played a crucial role in helping to mitigate even greater damage that could have occurred in nearby areas. It’s a role they will likely play more and more often as the changing climate delivers increasingly severe storms, rising sea levels and damaging storm surge.
“Conservation lands are resilient,” Ruhren said. “Whether they’re in a river floodplain or a coastal area, natural lands do what they’re supposed to do when the water rises – they absorb the water and release it slowly.”
According to Ruhren, the most valuable elements of any conserved property during flooding are wetlands, which he describes as “nature’s kidneys. In addition to absorbing and holding large quantities of water,” he said, “they also filter out many contaminants from the water.”
The difference is clearly visible. Water that surges downstream after a storm often looks like chocolate milk, he said. This is especially true where upstream areas are heavily developed with pavement and other structures that contribute to erosion and roadway run-off.
But when that water has a chance to filter through wetlands and other natural areas, it’s much cleaner when it reaches the bay.
“Sure, the trails might get flooded, but that’s just a short-term inconvenience,” Ruhren said. “But the water recedes as it filters down into the ground or continues downstream, and the forests are no worse off because of it. You might have a flooded forest for a short time, but they rebound quickly, and the plants and animals are adapted to it.”
The danger comes when wetlands are filled, when impermeable surfaces like pavement prevent water from seeping into the soil, and when increasing development is permitted along waterways.
“Think of it as if we’re filling a bathtub,” said Audubon’s Executive Director Lawrence Taft. “The more you fill in places with pavement and development, the less water an area can hold. By having open spaces and backing off development around wetlands, rivers and marshes – when waters start to creep up, there is a place for it to be stored.”
Taft and Ruhren agree that floodplains should be protected from extensive development so they can serve to mitigate damage when the waters inevitably rise again. Many local communities are finally getting the message.
The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council’s interactive mapping system, Storm Tools, is helping public officials visualize flood-prone areas and places that will likely be under water due to sea level rise in the coming decades. Coupled with a growing awareness of the import-ant role conservation lands play in flood mitigation, some communities are now recognizing that the protection of open space should be a key component of their comprehensive planning.
Taft is working with the State to develop new rules that factor in climate mitigation values when communities seek grants for open space and recreation lands in the future.
“We really need to start prioritizing those areas that can be safely flooded in our open space decision making,” he said. “Properties should be ranked higher if they’re near a river or in a flood zone because of the climate mitigation services they provide.”
But flood mitigation isn’t the only environmental benefit that conservation lands provide in this era of climate change. Established ecosystems like forests and salt marshes sequester carbon from the atmosphere while producing oxygen, and they provide critical habitat for birds and other wildlife whose habitat is rapidly changing.
“The more conservation land you have, the more places there will be for wildlife to shift their ranges to when it’s necessary,” said Ruhren. “And bigger is better, especially when the protected lands are connected.”
He also emphasized the important role that forests play in keeping streams and rivers cool.
“A lot of aquatic species are vulnerable to overheating, like native brook trout and freshwater mussels,” Ruhren said. “A good way to kill brook trout is to cut down the trees along the stream. We don’t think of heat as a pollutant or a stressor, but it is.”
“We often talk about how our forests are the lungs of Rhode Island because they clean the air, produce oxygen, absorb carbon and keep us cool,” added Taft. “Putting aside land for conservation helps with resiliency and adaptation and mitigation of some of the effects of climate change. Will the forests still change? Yes. Will the species change? Yes. But at least those open areas will be there to function for air quality, flood protection, habitat and cooling.”
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— Todd McLeish is a life-long birder, freelance science writer and author of several books about wildlife, including Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World.