Innovation Ecosystem

Keeping our eyes on the prize: Saving Narragansett Bay

The 53-year-old advocacy group Save The Bay keeps evolving its mission of place-based community building

Photo by Richard Asinof

The ongoing advocacy of Save The Bay is focused on protecting and preserving Narragansett Bay.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/24/23
Topher Hamblett, the interim Executive Director of Save The Bay, lays out his vision for increased advocacy, outreach and education during a time of great urgency around the threats of climate change, promoting greater stewardship for Narragansett Bay, in PART Two of an in-depth interview.
How will the growing concern around the urgency of climate threats translate into action at the ballot box, forcing elected officials to act with alacrity in protecting Narragansett Bay? How will the new resources obtained by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha translate into stricter enforcement of public health regulations when it comes to air pollution, water pollution, and improvements in protecting Rhode Islanders from chronic diseases? What would be an effective billboard campaign that could be launched along the state’s highways promoting tightened regulations around controlling PFAS contamination of our drinking water?
The ongoing willingness of news reporters to continually take the click bait and pursue stories about murder, mayhem, and scandal often means that the bigger stories, visible in plain sight – such as the growing mounds of recycled metal on the Providence waterfront somehow become invisible to the purveyors of scandal.
For the next two weekends, Newport will be home to the iconic jazz and folk festivals, bringing together the best of America’s rich tradition of cultural and music diversity, in outdoor celebrations surrounded by the rich natural beauty of Narragansett Bay.
Rhode Islanders are privileged to be able to assert “ownership” of Narragansett Bay and the efforts to protect and preserve the salt marshes that serve as the nursery of our lives. In celebrating the two music festivals, elected officials would do well to offer their heart-felt praise to the stewardship efforts of Save The Bay to protect and preserve life as we know it in Rhode Island.


PROVIDENCE – The steamy, humid dog days of summer have arrived for the communities surrounding Narragansett Bay, resulting in thunder storms and downpours – and frequent closing and openings of beaches because of high bacteria counts in the water.

That translates into some very busy days for Joseph Wendelken, the communications manager for the R.I. Department of Health, who posts the daily alerts for the closings and openings of beaches for swimming, depending on the bacterial counts in the water.

Through Labor Day, the public health agency is tasked with monitoring and reviewing water quality, resulting in what may be called a “Rhode Island two-step” dance around access to the beaches.

For instance, last week, on Thursday, July 20, bacteria counts had returned to safe levels at several beaches, enabling the Department of Health to reopen 11 beaches, including Lincoln Woods in Lincoln, City Park Beach in Warwick, Conimicut Beach in Warwick, Oakland Beach in Warwick, Third Beach in Middletown, Peabody’s Beach in Middletown, Sandy Point Beach in Portsmouth, Warren Town Beach in Warren, Camp Ruggles in Chepacet, Marion Irons in Gloucester, and Camp Watchaug in Charlestown.

Two days earlier, on Tuesday, July 18, the R.I. Department of Health had closed those beaches because of high bacteria counts – along with Barrington Town Beach in Barrington, Goddard Park in Warwick, and Harmony Hill School in Chepacet.

On Monday, July 17, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management closed several shellfish areas in Narragansett Bay and Point Judith Pond because of excessive rain received in the Providence area on Sunday, July 16, with the areas closed to shellfish harvesting until sunrise on Monday, July 24.

Translated, Narragansett Bay is a living, breathing interactive nurturing community of life – and Save The Bay is the nonprofit advocacy group charged with protecting its future.

In PART One of the ConvergenceRI interview with Topher Hamblett, the interim Executive Director of Save The Bay sketched in the challenges facing the group in protecting Narragansett Bay, focused on adaptability and resilience.

“There are two fundamental components to climate change. One is reducing greenhouse gases. The other is adaptation. And both are urgent,” Hamblett had said. “Save The Bay has focused – and will continue to focus and emphasize – the adaptation side. On the greenhouse gas reduction side of things, we’ve supported the Act On Climate law and other related legislation here in Rhode Island. And, there is a lot of energy, a lot of resources, being poured into mitigation.”

Hamblett had continued: “There are now resources being dedicated to adaptation and those are critical for the adaptation of Narragansett Bay. We are losing most of our salt marshes to sea rise. By the end of this century, we will have lost more than half of all our salt marshes. Salt marshes are the nurseries of life in Narragansett Bay.”

In PART Two, Hamblett talks about the educational and enforcement challenges – what it means going forward to “save the Bay.”

“I do think there is a deep-rooted mindset in the body politick that enforcement is, quote unquote, ‘bad for business,” Hamblett said. “We disagree with that. It’s good for business, not bad for business, especially for a state that touts its natural resources as one of its most important economic assets.”

Here is PART Two of the ConvergenceRI interview with Topher Hamblett, interim Executive Director of Save The Bay.

ConvergenceRI: You talked about political will. How do you quantify political will? Very often, it’s communities that are on the receiving end of problems of environmental justice. They often bear the burden of the lack of political will, to hold people accountable. Is that an accurate way to say that?
HAMBLETT: I can’t speak for anyone…

ConvergenceRI: You can speak for Save The Bay.
HAMBLETT: The lack of political will to enforce [regulations protecting the Bay] affects environmental justice communities more than anyone else. And, a lot of this is particular when it comes to air pollution.

We have supported for the last couple of years the Environmental Justice Act, which passed the Senate but not the House, two years running.

And, while it doesn’t clean up or reduce anything that’s presently going on, at least it gives communities much more of a fighting chance to prevent polluting facilities from being located in their communities, because it puts the emphasis on cumulative impacts.

I don’t know if you remember, there was this pyrolysis bill [to burn plastic waste], if you really look around the edges of the politics of that, and some of the comments that were made in the State House, and in the press, it appeared to us, that Fields Point was potentially a target or a landing spot for one of those facilities. Why is that?

I asked in testimony, or made the comment: “This is being pushed really hard. Who is this really for?” It’s not for the host communities. Host is probably not the right word, because “host” implies that you are welcome to my home,

From the people here on the South Side of Providence, who live in this neighborhood, for instance, you hear the phrase: “Enough is enough!” It’s true: Enough is enough.

ConvergenceRI: From my work at Environmental Action, the founder of Earth Day, where I served as co-editor in the 1980s, one of the messages always focused on “ownership” – the concept of loving your Mother Earth.
One of the most impressive successes of Save The Bay was that you were able to build a coalition of people who took “ownership” of the Narragansett Bay. They owned it, and people felt that it was theirs. It’s a philosophical question: How do you have people claim ownership of Narragansett Bay again?
HAMBLETT: I think people still do have ownership of it. Curt Spaulding, who was in this seat for a long, long time, he describes Save The Bay’s work as “community building.” It’s community building around Narragansett Bay. I think it exists today. There is no question that it needs strengthening, that sense of ownership. And it is one of the roles that we play.

But think of all the smaller watershed associations. The place-based watershed organizations – Narrow River, Taunton River, Blackstone River, Defenders of Greenwich Bay. There are lots of community groups that do take ownership of their place – and they are great advocates. And, we partner with them on our mutual goals.

But, interestingly, if I hear you correctly, Richard, you are saying that there needs to be greater ownership, a more emphatic ownership.

I think that’s always true. What is interesting is that the communications revolution, social media, the instant sharing of information, that has both helped build community around Narragansett Bay, but it also, like so many other things in the world, creates [a situation] that can make it almost too easy. You know, a couple pushes of the button and you’re done.

Katy [Dorchies Nutini, director of Communications and Marketing at Save The Bay] is doing a great job about harnessing the power of that medium to actually strengthen “environmentalism” for Narragansett Bay.

People are often so distracted; there is information coming at everyone so fast, and at such volume. How do you kind of cut through all that, to get people to really focus intensely on taking care of this place? It’s a huge challenge. But we wouldn’t have had the success we’ve had without it.

A brief history of Save The Bay
In his work at Save The Bay, Hamblett, who has been at the nonprofit for some 45 years, beginning as an intern in 1988, serves as the unofficial “keeper” of the history, in many ways. In response to the philosophical question from ConvergenceRI, Hamblett began an informal overview of the history of the organization.

HAMBLETT: Save The Bay was formed in 1970; it was started as a “save our community” [group] in response to a threat, that was an oil refinery.

I am a long-time “Save The Bayer.” I started here in 1988 as an intern. I worked for three of the four directors. And, I knew the first director, John Scanlon, because I was introduced by Trudy Coxe [who had helped organize the first annual Save The Bay swim in 1977 and who had served as executive director from 1979 to 1990].

In the broad sweep of Save The Bay’s life, the 1970s were about fending off these very large industrial fossil fuel facilities that were proposed for Tiverton, Prudence Island, Fall River, Providence, and North Kingstown.

Remember when there was great interest in oil drilling off the Continental Shelf in the Atlantic? We survived that period of time. In the 1980s, the organization turned its attention to water quality issues. At that point, the jewelry industry was still cranking along, the early 1980s was a time of uncontrolled dumping of toxics and chronic raw sewage overflows.

What Save The Bay called “grease balls” were washing up on all the shores of Providence River and the Upper Bay, because everything that was being flushed down the toilet was going straight into the Bay. The Blackstone River and the other rivers were running the colors of the dyes that were being dumped into it. It was a really bad time.

And, through lawsuits, and through mobilizing, and harnessing the people’s love for Narragansett Bay into action, Save The Bay was the leader in demanding change and improvement. And, that included things like investing in the upgrades of wastewater treatment plants and the building of new ones.

The battle to “save the Bay” evolves
In Hamblett’s narrative of the history of Save The Bay, the big battle from the 1980s into the 1990s was controlling what got dumped into the Bay.

The focus changed in the 1990s, in large part due to a large funding grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, focused on habitats.

HAMBLETT: In the 1990s, a couple of things happened within Save The Bay. We got a big grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, along with a bunch of other groups around the country, to take a hard look at the state of our habitats. And we wrote a report, “Bay in Crisis,” about the loss of salt marshes, fish runs, and eel grass. We made it a point to understand the ecology of the Bay itself, much more than we had before.

We also started our Baykeeper program in the 1990s, to get more in touch with the natural resources and how people can use it – to have an “on-the-water” presence, to monitor the Bay’s water quality.

And then, we set about to restoring habitats. We got very good at that, and we are still very good at that. But, a decade or more into the work, climate change impacts are starting to show, and these salt marshes that we are working to restore are now threatened by sea rise. As we hit the 2000s, we sounded the alarm on habitat loss.

Are we not our Bay’s keeper?
In the 2000s, as Hamblett recounted, Save The Bay kept expanding its role into more and more educational activities. The most recent task is in building a new aquarium in Newport.

HAMBLETT: We also added, over the years, a “Coast Keeper” program and a “River Keeper” program, to put our advocates out in the field, again, to understand what is happening ecologically, but also to do the “community building” that is essential for protecting and restoring the Narragansett Bay watershed and helping it to adapt to climate change.

Meanwhile, we had this fledgling education program in the 1980s, where the goal was to get every fifth-grader in Rhode Island one experience on the Bay, and we rented education vessels to do that. In the late 1990s, early 2000s, we made a big decision, which was to relocate [our headquarters] and to dramatically expand our education programs. The impetus behind that was a question: Who’s going to take care of this place long-term?

One of our goals is to educate and hopefully inspire young people to take care of Narragansett Bay, over the long haul. And, now we have three vessels, and we are building a new aquarium in Newport.

Investing in education
Much of the focus of Save The Bay’s outreach around protecting and preserving Narragansett Bay has shifted to expanding the organization’s robust education program.

HAMBLETT: Through our education program, we now reach 10,000 students a year. And, it’s not just a one-off experience. We go into classrooms, and classes of students come to us, through our facility here, for multiple experiences on the Bay.

So, I guess, this is long way of saying: “I m excited about where we are going right now.”

We are growing. We are growing the number of staff.

ConvergenceRI: How many staff do you have?
HAMBLETT: By the end of the year, it will be 40 plus; that is up from 32 six months ago. We are adding another habitat restoration staff [member]; we are going to be adding more staff to run the new aquarium in Newport.
We are adding education staff.

There are so many opportunities for grants; we are actually supplementing our grant-writing capacity, too. It’s an exciting time for Save The Bay. The new aquarium is going to be spectacular. And, it’s going to be more than an aquarium, Richard. It’s going to be a display on the history of protecting and cleaning up Narragansett Bay. There is going to be advocacy messaging there.

The facility is going to be a gathering place, too. There is a meeting room, where we will convene community groups and have guest lectures, those kinds of things.

What I see,  looking at one of our responses to the urgency of the moment, is to scale up. And, to lean into the work that we have been doing.

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
HAMBLETT: Here is an issue that is near and dear to our heart. It is the Coastal Resource Management Council. It is an important agency in dire need of structural reform.

While the staff is professional and does good work, the [current structure] of the Council makes coastal management highly politicized. It actually slows decision-making down on coastal development, whether you like a proposal or not. It adds layers of process and politics that don’t need to be there.

ConvergenceRI: Are you actively working with the Attorney General on that issue?
HAMBLETT: He’s supported legislation that was introduced this year that would be reform the council and that would also give the agency its own staff attorney, which it does not have, which is mind-boggling to me. Now, they have to contract out to a private law firm to represent both the Council and the staff. When the staff goes before the Council on a contested case, whom is that attorney representing? It’s a mess.

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