PROVIDENCE – This week, as Rhode Island joins the world in marking the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is reflecting on the progress Rhode Island has made in protecting our state's natural resources – from Narragansett Bay to local waters and green spaces to the air we breathe. Since 1970, efforts to improve air and water quality, clean up contaminated lands, conserve open space, increase recreational opportunities, and take action to confront climate change have greatly enhanced Rhode Islanders' quality of life.
"Earth Day is a time to get outdoors and explore our state's abundant natural resources, from the rolling hills of the Blackstone Valley, to the sandy shores of Aquidneck Island, to the sparkling waterways that grace southern Rhode Island," said Governor Dan McKee. "As Rhode Islanders, we're fortunate to have an abundance of parks, beaches, management areas, and bike paths where families can picnic, walk, bike, fish, or just enjoy the natural beauty of Rhode Island's environment. Today, on the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, we can all take pride in knowing that the steps we are taking to preserve and protect our precious natural resources will benefit Rhode Islanders now and well into the future."
"As we celebrate Earth Day, Rhode Islanders can take pride in our state's magnificent and diverse natural resources," said DEM Director Janet Coit. "We've made great strides in improving the health of our lands and waters since the 1970s, and I salute the hardworking staff at DEM who have led much of this work. Yet, we must continue to press for progress, as we have recently when Rhode Island's advocates and leaders stepped up to support a strong bill to combat climate change, signed into law by Governor McKee earlier this month. Their advocacy and actions result in strong laws necessary to restore and protect our environment now and for future generations."
A wide range of improvements has been made over the past five+ decades.
• The quality of the air that we breathe has improved dramatically since the enactment of the Clean Air Act in 1970 due to emissions reductions, increased automobile fuel efficiency and cleaner-burning cars, power sector improvements, a shift from coal to natural gas, and stricter emissions limits for manufacturing facilities. A steady decrease in air pollutants and stricter air quality standards mean less exposure and lower health risks for Rhode Islanders.
• Once overwhelmed by raw sewage and other pollution, today our bays, rivers, and coastal waters are cleaner and healthier as a result of strong environmental laws and significant investments to improve wastewater treatment facilities and undertake combined sewer overflow projects. As an example of progress, in 2017, rainfall related shell-fishing restrictions were lifted on portions of upper Narragansett Bay that had been in place for the past 70 years, resulting in 3,712 acres of approved shell fishing grounds. As well, areas in the Providence River will soon be reopened for shellfish harvest.
• The remediation and redevelopment of brownfields – vestiges of Rhode Island's industrial past – have mitigated the threat to public health and the environment from exposure to uncontrolled contamination. Since the establishment of the federal brownfields program in 2002, RI has received more than $40 million in federal support for cleanup work, job training, and site assessment work. In 2014, $5 million in state brownfields cleanup funding resulted in the cleanup of 24 sites spanning 142 acres. An additional $9 million in Green Economy Bond funding through DEM's Brownfields Remediation and Economic Development Fund has since capitalized 67 projects in communities across Rhode Island, helping build new schools, businesses, affordable housing, and green energy projects throughout the state.
• Rhode Island has seen the recovery of many imperiled bird and wildlife species such as the wood duck, wild turkey, snowy egret, osprey and bald eagle since the 1970s. Fish passage restoration projects including dam removals, traditional fishways, and nature-like fishways on rivers throughout the state have increased spawning and nursery habitat for migratory fish and benefited our freshwater fisheries. Several islands in Narragansett Bay have been transferred to DEM ownership and are now managed for wildlife. They host some of the prolific nesting areas for herons, egrets, and American oystercatchers, as well as nesting and migration stopover sites for songbirds.
• Since 1970, DEM has protected almost 50,000 acres of land and invested almost $75 million in grants for more than 500 recreation projects in all 39 Rhode Island municipalities. This includes the protection of iconic places like Rocky Point in Warwick and Tillinghast Pond in West Greenwich, as well as dozens of open spaces enjoyed by people and wildlife protected by municipalities, land trusts, and conservation organizations.
• Effective fisheries management measures have improved the stock sizes and status of the Atlantic striped bass and sea scallop fisheries. In the 1970s and 1980s, the striped bass population crashed due to overfishing and environmental issues. The collective effort of states to reduce harvest allowed the striper population to rebuild by the late 1990s. This success story had a positive impact on commercial and recreational fishing through the 2000s. Bluefish similarly were deemed to be at concerning population levels in the late 1990s, but after a nine-year fisheries management rebuilding plan, the stock was deemed rebuilt. Similarly, Atlantic sea scallops were declared overfished in 1997. A suite of management tools – including closed areas, effort reduction, gear and crew restrictions – led to rebuilding the population by 2001. The rebuilding of sea scallops has been extremely important for southern New England coastal communities including New Bedford and Point Judith, as sea scallops are one of, if not the largest, landed species in these ports.
Take action to confront climate change!
The enormous challenges associated with climate change have distinguished the issue as the most pressing topic on the 51st anniversary of Earth Day. As the Ocean State, we see the direct impacts of climate change now, from more intense storms to hotter summers. Climate change is an existential issue that affects the health, safety, and prosperity of our communities. Rhode Island has so much at stake — and we are grappling with the impacts from climate change, while working hard to slow its pace and to promote resiliency.
The recent signing by Governor McKee of the Act on Climate moves us faster in the right direction when it comes to reducing emissions that exacerbate climate change. In many respects, Rhode Island is a leader in climate change action through our work to increase clean energy and energy efficiency, grow the clean energy economy, increase the number of electric vehicles on our roadways, protect land, and support climate change resiliency projects in local communities. Although emissions are decreasing, scientists are clear that more reductions are needed faster to prevent disaster and drive down emissions more quickly. Fortunately, government, labor, businesses and advocates are working on cleaner options and innovative technologies to meet a net zero emissions by 2050 goal. As we celebrate Earth Day, taking stock of our individual actions and making concrete changes in our own behavior are meaningful ways to reduce emissions and preserve our environment.
Learn more about how RI is working to strengthen its resilience to climate change and to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions at http://climatechange.ri.gov/climatesnapshot/