In a year where not much has turned out well, the health of local salt ponds garnered a thumbs-up compared to this time last year from the Salt Ponds Coalition.
Excessive rain and high temperatures over the summer of 2019 caused many of the coastal salt ponds the Coalition studies to become rife with high bacteria levels — not a good thing for the environment, fish, wildlife or the community.
“Last year was very, very concerning,” said Arthur Ganz, president of the Salt Ponds Coalition, who is a retired marine biologist. “I have been doing this since the 1970s and I have never seen ponds as bad as they were last year.”
Ganz attributed those high levels of dangerous bacteria in the seven salt ponds the Coalition monitors to excessive rainfall.
“The rainwater washed everything into the ponds,” said Ganz, noting that fertilizer, road runoff, animal waste and other debris were the principal triggers for the growth of both fecal coliform and enterococcus. Fecal coliform is used as the indicator to close shellfish beds for harvesting and enterococcus is the standard indicator to close beaches and public swimming.
The summer of 2020, however, has proved to be a much better year for salt pond health and bacteria levels.
“I would say the levels have been pretty normal, which is a good thing. Last year, we had a severe problem,” added Ganz, who said he is invested wholeheartedly in the ecological well-being of the area as a marine biologist and as a longtime resident.
Each spring, summer and fall, the 500-person Coalition has about 30 volunteers who test the bacteria stations at seven salt ponds along Rhode Island’s south shore. These unique ponds act as vital nurseries for fish and shellfish, as well as food sources for birds, horseshoe crabs and butterflies.
The Coalition tests bacteria levels every other Wednesday starting in mid-May and lasting through mid-October.
“There was a small spike in bacteria levels in the western end of Winnapaug Pond recently, but nothing too alarming,” Ganz said.
Ganz said last year the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which ramped up its testing and monitoring program over the winter, had to close the pond, as well as many others, to ensure the safety of the community.
“Last year was definitely an extreme case,” Ganz said. “Knock on wood since. It has been a fairly dry summer this year. The bacteria levels have been good and we hope they will stay good.”
Utilizing the University of Rhode Island’s Environmental Protection Agency lab, the Coalition, which was incorporated in 1984, scrutinizes water quality, conducts public outreach programs and promotes the protection and conservation of the salt ponds.
Bacteria tests completed on Sept. 2 came in pretty good, Ganz said.
“All things considered, things are looking good, and high levels of bacteria were only found in the upper part of Point Judith Pond where the Saugatuck River runs into it. Green Hill Pond also had poor water quality, and two stations at Ninigret Pond, both at the eastern end, but everything else was pretty healthy.”
Ganz added that the ponds with high levels of bacteria were expected. All others tested clean and the health of the ponds and their ecosystems are looking good heading into the fall.