The Westerly Sun
CHARLESTOWN — Students from the Chariho Tech agricultural sciences program arrived at the Quonnie salt marsh Tuesday morning carrying trays of marsh grasses that they had grown from seed. With guidance from Save The Bay’s Director of Habitat Restoration Wenley Ferguson, they grabbed gloves and trowels and headed for the designated planting area.
This was the second and final phase of the salt marsh restoration project. Dredging of the Quonochontaug breachway took place last winter and the dredged sediment was placed on the marsh.
“A slurry of water and sediment was pumped onto the marshes,” Ferguson said.
Like many of Rhode Island’s salt marshes, the Quonnie marsh had subsided to the point where it was constantly underwater. The vegetation had died and the decaying ground was too soggy to even walk on.
“This is a poster child for a marsh that had drowned in place,” Ferguson said.
The dredging project began in November 2018 and involved a collaboration between numerous federal, state and local governments and agencies, environmental groups, charitable foundations and local businesses and citizens.
Most of the $2 million for the first phase of the work came from a $980,000 coastal resilience grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Charlestown contributed $450,000 and private organizations and individuals from Charlestown and Westerly raised $350,000.
Other partners in the project are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and Save The Bay.
Once the height of the marsh had been restored with the dredged sediment, Save the Bay used a special low ground pressure excavator from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to create drainage channels for the salt water that flows in during high tides and the fresh water that accumulates when it rains. The excavator rides across the top of the marsh without sinking in and crushing it.
In the second phase of the restoration, Ferguson explained, salt tolerant vegetation was planted on a spit that had been built up using dredged sediment. Beach grasses were also planted on the west side of the marsh.
“It was important to plant early on, right after that sand was placed, because it helps stabilize the sand,” she said. “So as the wind blows, those grasses, even before they start to green up, just the structure of the grass helps capture the sand.”
Chariho agricultural sciences instructor Stacie Pepperd said 24 students had helped grow the grasses from seed. She also noted that this year there had been some challenges getting the seeds to germinate.
“We were not as successful as we have been in the past,” she said. “Some trays were super successful, some were not, and the seeds came from two different sources, so that was probably why.”
Chariho students have been growing and planting marsh grass seeds for several years, first at the Winnapaug marsh and last year at Ninigret.
“Each year that we do it, it’s a new group of students so it’s new to them and it’s neat to be a part of something that’s larger, but they still get to see the whole process,” Pepperd said.
Chelsea Flynn of Charlestown, a freshman, was one of six students planting the grasses.
“It’s interesting to see how people are restoring the marsh for the habitat of the animals and to keep the soil in place,” she said.
Chariho junior Dalton Stone, from Richmond, is volunteering for a second year.
“I love it,” he said. “Just doing local action and helping out here. We do a lot of state and national things, but doing something right in your community and helping out and to see the impact just a year later is really great.”
Tuesday’s planting completed the second phase of the restoration. Ferguson said her team would return to check on all the plantings and the newly-dug drainage channels and would likely add more plants next spring.
The planted area has been cordoned off to give the plants a chance to establish and signs explain that a restoration project is in progress.
“Some folks are concerned about limiting public access, but in the case of this project, we actually enhanced public access by elevating the spit,” Ferguson said. “Knowing how degraded this marsh was, if you took time to walk through it and see the extent of degraded areas in the marsh and the marsh dying off, explaining that to people that is what is happening, most people are very supportive of it.”