Riding a Wave of Action

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Environmental Health

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Surfers spend a lot of time in the water, riding and, mostly, waiting for waves.  If you spend a lot of time in the water, you tend to care about the quality of the water you spend all that time in.  This is the foundational rationale for the aptly named Clean Ocean Access (COA), a Rhode Island group monitoring the health of the ocean and beaches around Aquidneck Island, bounded on the east by the Sakonnet River and on the west by Narragansett Bay, and home to Newport, of mansion and music festival fame.

“When we formed in 2006, it was indeed about a lot of surfers who were upset about water quality,” says the group’s co-founder and Executive Director, Dave McLaughlin.  “But over the years, as people have observed or participated in what we do, we’ve really become a coastally inspired organization that brings together all ocean activities and all forms of stewardship because, whether you are a surfer or a sailor or just walking the beach, everyone’s got some kind of connection to the ocean and everyone really does care about ocean health.”

Today the group runs programs in its three areas of concern (Clean, Ocean, and Access) that bring together residents in Aquidneck Island’s three towns, Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport, Rhode Island, to improve the health and accessibility of their local beaches and waters. 

Three Programs

The Clean Program organizes more than 50 cleanups annually of beaches in southern Rhode Island, events whose design has engaged more than 6000 citizens in making a difference on the coastline and to raising awareness of the condition of local beaches, particularly the amount of marine debris. In 2014, COA initiated the Marine Debris Solutions Lifecycle Project (MDSLP) at Sachuest Point to pilot a new cleanup approach that splits the shoreline into manageable sections.  Each section of beach is assigned to a volunteer who will perform a coastal cleanup once a month.

The Ocean Program conducts year-round, weekly water testing of 10 locations on Aquidneck Island. Water samples are analyzed by the RI Department of Health for concentrations of Enterococcus bacteria, high levels of which can close swimming beaches in the summer. COA observations have concluded that high levels can persist into the fall and winter, when beaches are not monitored, but surfing, swimming and boating activities continue.

The Access Program conducts bi-monthly surveys of public access points on the island. COA has formal agreements, through the Adopt-An-Access Program, to monitor 24 sites at least twice a month.  The group maintains written records of each monitoring event that describe the conditions, problems, and activities at the site, and volunteers take responsibility for maintaining the locations. COA also participates and runs many community-oriented programs throughout the year. In 2015 alone, they were involved in 68 events within the local community.

The Beaches

Among the best known beaches on the island are First, or Easton’s, Beach, at the head of Easton’s Bay in Newport, and Second Beach, or Sachuest Beach, at the head of Sachuest Bay, on the long, curving arm of Sachuest Point, known for its wildlife sanctuary, in Middletown.

“In the summer of 2013, at a barbecue, people were talking about why there was so much seaweed at the beaches,” McLaughlin recalls. “Some folks with academic experience chimed in and explained nutrients and microalgae and we kind of came up with the hypothesis about how seaweed at the beaches may be related to excess nutrients coming from the watershed and that that’s providing an atmosphere where the seaweed will grow at an abnormal rate.”

By 2014, concerns about the abundance of floating seaweed at First and Second beaches led COA to initiate the Seaweed Nutrient Analysis Program (SNAP) in 2014 under the Ocean program. Weekly measurements and observations were made of seaweed, nutrients and water temperature to compile a profile and database of seaweed abundance, types and environmental conditions.

Citizen Science

“That was how the SNAP program started and we created a citizen-science, volunteer program, hedging our bets completely that this would be seen as a value proposition and that people in the community would get involved and would support us.”  It worked; volunteers showed up in increasing numbers; and in 2015, the group received a Grow grant to purchase supplies for their weekly test kits and for a stipend for a coordinator to evolve methods of data collection and to educate the community about green infrastructure and solutions to the loading of nutrients, chiefly phosphorus and nitrogen. The data obtained through the program will help to find nutrient sources in the watershed and give the opportunity to identify problem areas.

“With some funding from the Island Foundation and the Newport FED Charitable Foundation and the Grassroots Fund, we were able to move the project forward and we’ve collected 312 water samples and seaweed samples and we’ve begun doing the analysis on them,” McLaughlin says.   “We’ve amassed two years worth of data and, although it’s a very difficult decision not to continue a data set, we thought it was important for us to assess what we’ve collected and to try to draw some general conclusions and findings,” a process that is ongoing. 

The success of SNAP in creating “an increased awareness and community involvement about watershed nutrients led us to create a new program,” McLaughlin explains, “where we started to look upstream in the watershed of Bailey’s Brook, to look for nitrogen and phosphorus further up the stream.  We engaged with a couple of schools and some community volunteers to keep the watershed nutrient-analysis piece going, but we essentially turned off the microalgae analysis,” he says.

Moving Upstream

This spring, COA began “compiling a report of the week-to-week, seasonal and year-to-year variation of the nutrients as well as the genus and species of the seaweed,” McLaughlin says, acknowledging the next phase, trying to interpret the findings in terms of where and how to improve the environment up the watershed will be challenging “because their are so many variables that can lead to how the seaweed and the algae is actually grown on the shoreline.

“You have three different types of seaweeds: reds, greens and browns and, depending on where they’re at in their lifecycle, reds can look like browns and browns can become greens, so it’s complicated,” McLaughlin notes “There’s more to it than just identifying how much seaweed is there; you have to figure out if is this decaying seaweed or is this growing seaweed, and where is it at in its life cycle?”

The Bailey’s Brook watershed flows through the heart of Middletown and all kinds of neighborhoods, from residential to commercial and industrial, including a close brush with the island’s airport.  Protecting the brook has been an issue on the island for many years; it’s especially important to COA because it flows into Green End Pond (home to the Newport water plant) and its waters end up flowing out of Easton Beach into Easton Bay after passing through Easton Pond.

Identifying Hotspots

“One of the primary things we’re doing now that’s really building onto what started from this seaweed nutrient analysis program is we’re using the data in the upstream watershed area around Bailey’s Brook,” McLaughlin explains, “to try to identify the hotspots and, where we do see increased nutrient levels, to then try to determine if green infrastructure, if reducing the amount of impervious surface cover, if riparian buffers for different storm water management structures, if any of those measures will actually help this problem.”

McLaughlin says COA has also added a test for bacteria in the brook, which allows the organization “to play a role as a leader in community-based scientific analysis in the watershed.  We’ve pretty much taken the lead in monitoring the health of this brook, which allows other organizations, our partner organizations, to try to move forward, working with residential properties and commercial properties on how to reduce the flow of storm water and reduce the amount of nutrients.”

A Decade of Success

“We’ve been around now for 10 years,” McLaughlin points out, noting, “we’ve removed more than 87,000 pounds of debris from the shoreline and, a couple years ago, we identified that, out of the 46,000 items we found on the shoreline in one year, 13,000 of them were cigarette butts.  So we advocated for no smoking ordinance at beaches, parks and recreation areas, and we got that in place. This is the first summer where we have an island-wide no smoking ordinance and the beaches,” he adds. “Those are two great examples of where we’ve made a significant contribution to reducing a particular kind of pollution but we’ve also used the data for advocacy and education to improve ocean health.

“On the public access side,” McLaughlin says, “building a relationship with the community and bringing the importance of public access and protecting it is one of the issues that started the organization.   Now we’re certainly at the table, protecting and preserving our public access to the shoreline.  In 2008, we adopted one location because it was near and dear to our hearts; a little while later, we adopted a second location, and now we monitor all 50 sites and we’ve adopted half of them, so we certainly have made progress and inroads toward our long term goal of protecting shoreline access.

McLaughlin characterizes Clean Ocean Access as “the watchdog, in a positive way, for monitoring the health of our coastal waters.”  That’s led, he says, “to some great relationships with local, state and federal agencies,” adding, as an example, the groups recent discovery of a leaking pipe.

“When we collected water samples, we found it was pure sewage,” he says.  “We notified the city and they were grateful,” he notes.  “They worked with property owners and did smoke and dye testing and traced it back to a faulty toilet.  

“So we’ve built great relationships, we’ve kept the focus on water quality and wanting water quality to improve and it’s really been out of the ocean program, this watershed work as well, and the credibility of what we’ve done is why we’ve been able to move forward.”

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