Sustainable South County

Through efforts big and small, local groups find ways to preserve the area for generations to come

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Rhode Island has always been at the forefront of sustainability. As a region defined by its coast, South County has long been doing its part to slow climate change on a grassroots level. In 2016, the 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm made national headlines when it started operating its five wind turbines just off the coast of New Shoreham, making it the country's first offshore wind farm. In 2020, Governor Gina Raimondo declared that Rhode Island would be the first state in the US to be 100 percent clean-energy powered by 2030. In January, the newly launched Rescue Rhode Island Act promises to bring three critical climate-impact bills to the General Assembly, including green housing, sustainably produced food, and protecting clean air and water. These are just a few of the noteworthy changes that have put Rhode Island at the forefront of an environmental revolution, but it's not just at a state level that such waves are being made. 

As one of the state’s top employers, the University of Rhode Island has made a concerted effort to both save energy and reduce its carbon footprint, making the most impact with its major infrastructure improvements. Although buildings and facilities at the Kingston campus grew by 1.15 million square feet over the past 15 years, greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 25 percent. According to Marsha Garcia, URI’s campus sustainability officer, initiatives including a new car-pooling option for commuter students, bike path, energy efficient buildings, and other energy conservation efforts have resulted in a reduction of 89 billion British Thermal Units (BTUs) in steam heat and 11 million kilowatt hours of electricity saved annually.

In 2015, URI joined the Town of South Kingstown and the Town of Narragansett to form the South Kingstown Solar Consortium (SKSC) to determine the feasibility of developing solar farms on three remediated Superfund (formerly contaminated, reclaimed) landfills located in South Kingstown. The “on-site” solar facilities at the Rose Hill Landfill, Plains Road Town Dump, and URI Disposal Site total 42 collective acres, and the “off-site” solar project in West Greenwich encompasses 145 acres.

“Whether it is a cloudy day on December 21 or a sunny day on June 21, which are the shortest and the longest days of the year, we’re getting 25 percent of all energy from the ‘on-site’ landfill sites and 22.5 percent of all energy produced at the ‘off-site’ solar site,” says South Kingstown’s Public Services Director Jon Schock.

“I think the most important thing is that zero capital dollars were required by any of the SKSC members for either of the solar projects,” Schock adds. “The projects were entirely funded by the solar developers and the energy is credited to the SKSC members under the State’s VNM (virtual net metering) program.”

Not only is the region benefiting from the cleanest and most abundant renewable energy source, but the project is also a beneficial adaptive reuse of sites otherwise deemed undevelopable. “It’s a win-win for everybody, especially for the landfill beneficial reuse,” says Schock. “Landfills are pretty limited on what we can use them for once they are capped and remediated.”

Another major effort is South Kingstown’s plastic bag ban, which went into effect in 2019 and was recently reinstated after a brief suspension during COVID. While there are exemptions for specific-use bags (like those for dry cleaning, newspapers, or produce), Representative Carol Hagan McEntee (D-Dist. 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett) would like to see that framework broaden, sponsoring legislation that would ban single-use plastic bags statewide.

“In Rhode Island, we throw away approximately 26,000 tons of plastic bags and plastic film every year. This amount is about 5 percent of the debris that is thrown into the landfill per year. When you think about how little plastic bags weigh, this is a staggering amount of waste,” McEntee explains. 2021 will mark the fourth year the persistent McEntee will introduce the Plastic Waste Reduction Act. “Not only is reducing plastics in our environment so important to our community because of jobs and economic impact, but for the health, safety, and welfare of our citizens. Plastics litter our parks, clog our rivers and oceans, and choke our wildlife. These particles end up in our soil, in our drinking water, in the food we eat and in the air we breathe.”

McEntee points to the commercial fishing industry in Galilee as a place where plastic pollutants can have catastrophic trickle-down impact. The fishing fleet is the largest in the state (the second largest in New England), employs approximately 2,000 people, and generates more than $400 million in economic activity each year. “Plastics that enter the marine environment break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which are ingested by marine life, putting Rhode Island’s fishing industry and aquatic ecosystems at risk.”

While a massive higher-education institution and local government are obviously big players in making sustainable changes in any region, South County businesses have made their own grassroots efforts to slow climate change and protect the coastline. For example, Grey Sail in Westerly recently became the first craft brewery in Rhode Island to capture its waste carbon dioxide emissions and reuse them to carbonate its beer, thus reducing their carbon footprint. Gansett Poke is a solar-powered, plastic-free mobile food cart in Narragansett. Mama Earth is an eco-friendly, organic, green dry cleaning and laundry service in Richmond that uses 100 percent biodegradable cleaning fluid. And with Rhode Island welcoming around 25 million visitors every year (sans pandemic), a significant portion of whom stay in South County, the accountability of the hospitality industry is substantial.

Ocean House Management Collection, a resort management company encompassing the Ocean House, Weekapaug Inn, and The Preserve Sporting Club & Residences at Boulder Hill, collectively accounts for the highest number of guest rooms in South County. With a stake in sustainability, The Ocean House and Weekapaug Inn are eliminating

single-use plastic on property and have implemented measures like providing reusable drinking bottles to use at filtered water dispensers. In their rooms and suites, guests will find refillable shampoo, conditioner, and body soap dispensers in lieu of travel-size toiletries, and to encourage water conservation, towels are only replaced upon request.

For such picturesque properties that are a hallmark of South County lodging, protecting the land they sit on is paramount. Since its location on Quonochontaug Pond is a signature part of the guest experience, Weekapaug Inn is cognizant of its sensitive habitat. As one of nine coastal salt ponds in the area, the property installed landscaping features such as vegetated buffers constructed of grasses and native shrubs to intercept surface water runoff headed towards the pond, slow it down, and allow the water to infiltrate. A river-stone border adds another layer of protection while combating erosion, while limited use of lawn-care products prevents excess nitrogen and phosphorus that can cause an overgrowth of algae and harm marine life.

While locals know Matunuck Oyster Bar as one of South County’s most popular restaurants, it’s also a destination for education: Travelers learn about the area’s growing aquaculture economy on tours of the restaurant’s oyster farm. Owner and oysterman Perry Raso introduced pontoon tours of his seven-acre oyster farm on Potter Pond in East Matunuck so that visitors could discover how oysters are raised, the mighty mollusk’s ability to filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, and the sustainable practices that get the briny bivalve from pond to plate. Guests are also able to see Raso’s certified organic vegetable farm, where he grows arugula, bok choy, kale, spinach, and other greens.

Similarly, 401 Oyster Company operates boat tours on Ninigret Pond, where tour-goers motor out to the oyster farm lease site (and see five other oyster farms) to observe the different growing stages of the oysters, from 6mm seed to market size – and taste the oysters plucked and shucked right before their eyes. Owner Brian Pinsky says the popular tours usually consisted of half tourists and half local residents: “The locals sometimes were even more interested to learn because a lot of people don’t realize all of the oyster farming that is going on right in their own backyards or on the coastal ponds they spend their time on,” says Pinsky. “For us, there is great value in people from the towns we grow in to have direct knowledge of [and] a good, first-hand experience with our operations. Sometimes we get people in opposition to what we do and it seems most of the time, they are just uninformed, so the more people with first-hand knowledge and positive experiences, the better.”

The intersection of aquaculture and tourism offers an opportunity to promote, attract, and educate visitors from far and wide. “Agritourism” allows a farm to diversify its operations, provides an economic benefit to farm owners and aquaculture growers, preserves farming traditions, and often helps preserve the space – land or water.

In an area often defined by its magnificent coast and wondrous waterways, grave threats including erosion, rising sea levels, warmer ocean temperatures, coastal storm surge, and subsequent flooding are very real. Over the past 50 years, Rhode Island has lost over 250 feet of beach, with the worst of it felt in South County. According to the Rhode Island Sea Grant, which works to enhance environmental stewardship and long-term economic development/responsible use of coastal and marine resources, "Matunuck, Misquamicut, and South Kingstown Town Beach have lost over 400 feet of beach combined in the last 40 years."

“My district covers miles of waterfront properties from Narragansett Beach to Bonnet Shores and Narragansett Bay,” says McEntee. “The environment is very important to all communities, but especially to coastal communities where we see the effects of sea level rise and coastal erosion first-hand.” Also within her district is the Narrow River, (technically the Pettaquamscutt River). Both a wildlife habitat and popular recreation area, the tidal inlet flows six miles long and opens into the Atlantic Ocean at Narragansett Beach. The watershed’s coastal wetlands were identified by RI DEM as “extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, especially rising sea level” as well as water quality and quantity. Weather events like Superstorm Sandy in 2012 exposed such vulnerabilities on a wide scale, with a significant amount of marsh lost to erosion not only at the Narrow River but across South County.

Many multi-year projects have raised elevation through dredging to make local marshes more resilient. Cooperative endeavors often involve municipalities working with agencies like the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the Coastal Resources Management Council, The Nature Conservancy, and Save the Bay, but residents can also act to ensure the health and resiliency of both wetlands and woodlands in their community. And while combating climate change is a long and uphill battle, when you see the beauty of South County, it’s clear that every sustainable step forward is worth it. 

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