Innovation Ecosystem

Where in the world is Narragansett Bay?

It is apparently invisible to Gov. Dan McKee

Photo by Richard Asinof

Topher Hamblett, the executive director of Save The Bay, at Save The Bay headquarters in Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/22/24
A question and answer interview with Topher Hamblett, recently appointed the executive director of Save The Bay, after serving as the interim director for the last seven months.
What citizen actions can spur greater investment in Narragansett Bay by the General Assembly in 2024? What kinds of journalistic collaborations are possible by the news media to bring greater focus on the threats of climate change? Will the Rhode Island Foundation begin to include climate change resilience in its grant distribution strategy to nonprofit organizations and businesses in Rhode Island? How can Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut strengthen their collaborative efforts around stronger regulations and protections against climate change disruption? How will the R.I. Attorney General’s office weigh in on the state’s lackluster approach to meeting its legal requirements on climate change?
ConvergenceRI read with great interest Frank Carini’s latest column, A Frank Take, entitled “Generational Frustrations Grow over Local and Global Climate Inaction,” in ecoRI’s “Weekender Newsletter. Carini, a co-founder of ecoRINews, offered the viewpoint of Tom Wojiick, a 76-year-old Rhode Islander: “Noboby seems to be willing to dig in and address [climate change] because they don’t know what to do. It’s not that they are unwilling; it’s just overwhelming.”
Which, of course, makes the opportunities for collaboration amongst those of us who do know what to do – at least in terms of environmental reporting – that much more crucial. ConvergenceRI had recently written to ecoRI News about a potential collaboration on a story focused on the future of South Providence, proposing a preliminary conversation. Unfortunately, the proposed collaboration on a story was declined by ecoRI, because they “already have a number of other projects on deck that are going to take significant time and attention.”
Last week, on Thursday, Jan. 18, United Way of Rhode Island launched the Alliance for Nonprofit Impact, an effort to focus nonprofit organizations operating in Rhode Island in a collaborative framework, under the leadership of Nancy Wolanski. The hope is that through this collaboration, nonprofits can achieve more bargaining power to no longer be treated as “disposable vendors” by state government.
As with collaborations around climate change, the truth is that all change begins on the inside, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., often reminded us. We cannot hope to change the world without being able to change our own behaviors, to practice inclusiveness and respect and kindness. Nuf said.

PROVIDENCE – Our world is awash with the rising waters of climate change. With each new storm comes a ravishing of our shorelines and coastal communities, roads flooded, housing developments swamped, the news media filled with provocative images of houses teetering on the edge, about to be swallowed by the jaws of the sea.

Here in Rhode Island, the profound levels of disconnect and denial of the climate threat are off the charts, at least when it comes to elected officials such as Gov. Dan McKee. In his State of the State address given on Tuesday evening, Jan. 16, Gov. McKee did not even mention Narragansett Bay once.

Yet, at the same time, the Governor offered up examples of future investments by the state – improvements to dock infrastructure at Quonset Point, the launch of new offshore wind projects, and the profits in the harvesting of squid, without ever saying "Narragansett Bay" or acknowledging the realities of climate disruption in Rhode Island.

Worse, it seems, the news media swallowed the performance hook, line and sinker [pun intended].

It seems important then, to present a question-and-answer interview with Topher Hamblett, the newly anointed executive director of Save The Bay, as a way to try and inject a semblance of reality into the conversation about Rhode Island’s future. Last summer, ConvergenceRI had conducted a two-part, in-person interview with Hamblett upon his being named interim director. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “Why the sea is boiling hot?” and “Keeping our eyes on the prize: Saving Narragansett Bay.”]

The future of Rhode Island, its prosperity, and its resilience, is tied to the future of saving Narragansett Bay, regardless of Gov. McKee’s sin of omission.

ConvergenceRI:  In the same way that Massachusetts publishes an Index of the Massachusetts Innovation Economy with an academic partner [and R.I. Kids Count publishes its annual Factbook], does Rhode Island need an Index of Narragansett Bay and its watershed, to create a series of metrics and benchmarks to measure the health of the Bay?  
HAMBLETT: The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program produces a “State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed” report that includes indices – water quality, habitat health, water temperature, forested cover, and impervious surfaces. That report is produced by the program’s science advisory committee and makes broad recommendations about program management and strategies. We reference it often and it is a valuable resource and publication. [See link below to the report.]

Editor’s Note: The link provided by Save The Bay was to a report that had been written in 2017, clearly out of date, given the ongoing changes that have occurred to Narragansett Bay during the last seven years. The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program is a program of Roger Williams University. The program publishes a summary report every five years. The answer provided by Hamblett seemed to avoid answering the intent of ConvergenceRI’s question: How was the latest data about changes to the quality of Narragansett Bay being tracked on an annual basis and made available to the public as an educational tool for change? 

ConvergenceRI: What would be the most important metrics to measure on an annual basis in such an Index? Water temperature? Fish stocks? Microplastics in water? The preservation of salt marshes? Closure of shell fishing beds?  
HAMBLETT: We find that the NBEP’s report includes a great deal of what is needed to advocate for the Bay. No missing data comes to mind at the moment.

ConvergenceRI: What is the best way to spur greater enforcement of environmental regulations to protect Narragansett Bay.  
HAMBLETT: It’s important to remember that environmental enforcement is important for the Bay, while also a critical factor in public health, worker safety and in communities where pollution is rampant.

Whether or not enforcement happens is a matter of political will [emphasis added]. Save The Bay urges the environmental agencies to enforce the laws on the books. We report incidents we discover through direct observation and from community tips, and urge the General Assembly to call for enforcement. But, when it comes to really affecting improvements to environmental enforcement, the answer to your question is “people." Public pressure and the mobilization of affected communities has – and can – spur greater enforcement.

ConvergenceRI: If you were to design a series of tours for legislators and business leaders in Rhode Island, where would you take them?  
HAMBLETT: We would [and often already do] take members of these groups on a tour of the Providence River whose shoreline ranges from heavy industrial use to salt marsh habitat. The restoration of the Providence River is also emblematic of what can happen when a community unites for the sake of a shared resource.

ConvergenceRI: What do you see as the greatest threats to the long-term health and stability of Narragansett Bay?  
HAMBLETT: Climate change. As we’ve seen over just the last week, changing weather patterns are bringing more frequent and intense precipitation events that are compromising our infrastructure, while also contributing to erosion and more.

And this is in addition to warming waters, changing species, and loss of critical habitats, like salt marshes — all of which combine with emerging contaminants [like microplastics and PFAS] to make supporting the health of Narragansett Bay a complex ongoing challenge.

ConvergenceRI: I know I asked you this question last summer, but let me ask it again: if Save The Bay had a billboard on Route 95, what would it say? What would be the message? What would be the image?  
HAMBLETT: In the era of climate change, Narragansett Bay is too important to be left in the hands of a politically appointed volunteer council. While it might not all work for a billboard, our call to “ditch the council” and reform CRMC (Coastal Resources Management Council) is one of our key priorities and messages at this time.

ConvergenceRI: What is the status of the aquarium in Newport?  
HAMBLETT: We anticipate opening later this winter and are looking forward to connecting guests with the Bay and our mission through this interactive and engaging space.

ConvergenceRI: What are the lessons to be learned about the breakdown of the bridges and highway system this winter as the result of apparent poor construction? Is there an opportunity to re-introduce ferries as a form of connection?  
HAMBLETT: It’s a great reminder that the infrastructure that protects Narragansett Bay requires ongoing attention and maintenance; this includes wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, and storm water management infrastructure.

ConvergenceRI: What investments would you like to see the General Assembly make to better protect Narragansett Bay?
HAMBLETT: Maybe more of an action than an investment, but our top legislative priority this year is to reform CRMC so that it functions like a normal administrative agency.

We want to get rid of the politically appointed volunteer Council, add a full-time attorney to the staff list, and have the executive director accountable to the governor. The current structure compromises the management of our coastal resources at a time when climate change impacts are already jeopardizing them.

In addition to fixing these structural failures, the assembly also needs to add staff and resources to the agency, so that the agency can keep up with a growing workload that encompasses issues like offshore wind, public access, aquaculture siting, and more.

ConvergenceRI: What collaborations would you like to see between environmental advocacy groups moving forward?  
HAMBLETT: There is growing collaboration among environmental advocacy groups in the areas of climate change, environmental justice, environmental enforcement, and habitat restoration and adaptation — all complex issues that benefit from a strong united front among environmental advocacy groups.

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?  
HAMBLETT: An issue that’s been on my mind is the question of how we go about processing the full scale of what Narragansett Bay is up against in terms of climate change. How ready are we to face the reality of what these changes mean for our day-to-day lives, the natural resources we love, and how we’re able to enjoy them?

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