Friday, May 21, 2021

Have an environmental concern? Call Dave Prescott.

        When Rhode Islanders visit the coastal areas of South County and discover an oil sheen on the water, a fish kill, a barrier to public access to the shoreline, a large concentration of plastic debris, or any number of other concerns, one of the first people they should turn to is Dave Prescott. The CoastKeeper for Save the Bay, Prescott is the eyes and ears of the Ocean State’s south coast and Little Narragansett Bay, a watchdog for water quality, and a voice for those seeking to draw attention to environmental issues in the region.
        “Every day in this job is different, and things can change in a heartbeat,” said Prescott, who has lived in Charlestown for the last 20 years. “I’m out in the community and on the water keeping an eye on things, but I also rely on the public informing me of the things that they see are happening. Some days I’m doing marsh restoration at Quonochontaug or Ninigret, other days I’m doing water quality testing or standing in front of a town council meeting or testifying at the Coastal Resources Management Council. My job is always changing.”
        It’s a job he loves because of his passion for the coastal environment. Prescott grew up in coastal northeast Massachusetts and spent a great deal of time at the nearby Parker River National Wildlife
CoastKeeper Dave Prescott at Winnipaug Pond (Mike Derr)

Refuge, where he spent his youth exploring tidepools and salt marshes and learning to surf. After earning a marine biology degree at Roger Williams University, he landed a job in the education department at Save the Bay, and he has played a leading role with the state’s most visible environmental group ever since.
        For six years, he taught environmental lessons in classrooms and at summer camps, led programs for children and adults on boats and in salt marshes, and discussed the importance of protecting Narragansett Bay.
        “I always had an interest in doing more with policy and being more of an advocate than just an educator,” said Prescott, who is based at Save the Bay’s South Coast Center in downtown Westerly. “So when the CoastKeeper opportunity opened up, I jumped at it. It expanded Save the Bay’s geographic role to the south coast, which was ideal for me. We’d been doing work in South County for decades, but we never had an established presence down here.”
        Like Save the Bay’s BayKeeper and RiverKeeper, the CoastKeeper program is affiliated with the WaterKeeper Alliance, an international organization that works to ensure that every community has drinkable, swimmable and fishable water. Working with more than 300 similar advocates around the country allows Prescott and his Save the Bay colleagues to be connected to a large network of advocates who can help each other address similar issues.
        Water quality is one of the biggest issues he deals with on a daily basis, focused largely on encouraging communities to address stormwater runoff and wastewater treatment problems. Last year he worked with the town of Charlestown to build six raingardens on town property to serve as demonstration projects for homeowners to show how they can use raingardens on their properties to help filter out pollutants and alleviate flooding.
        “My big water quality focus is in Little Narragansett Bay and the lower Pawcatuck River, where we have some old infrastructure in downtown Westerly and Stonington,” he said. “There are a lot of sources of nutrients that drain into Little Narragansett Bay – from wastewater treatment plants, farms, stormwater runoff. If you look at the water quality, it looks great until you go under the water.”
        While surveying for eelgrass between Sandy Point and Napatree Point, he found massive mats of a seaweed called Cladophora, which Prescott describes as looking like “a green Brillo pad.” In many places it is several feet thick and smothers anything that lives on the seafloor beneath it. Prescott is working with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and other partner organizations to remediate the pollution sources that are responsible for the growth of the Cladophora mat.
        He is also helping communities address a wide variety of impacts from the changing climate, including coastal erosion due to more severe storms and rising sea levels that are flooding salt marshes. At Quonochontaug and Ninigret, he is helping plant marsh grasses and restore habitat following major efforts to raise the elevation of the marshes using material dredged from the waterways.
        “Climate change is a huge issue and is having big impacts, not only on the marshes but also on the built environment,” Prescott said. “I’m trying to educate stakeholders and town leaders about where there may be opportunities to move infrastructure away from the shoreline and think differently about how we develop our shoreline.
        “A lot of this sounds like doom and gloom, but it doesn’t have to be,” he added. “We just need to have the conversations ahead of time and not wait for the next storm to do something.”
        The key, he said, is ensuring that any rebuilding efforts following storm damage should be done with community resilience in mind. “It’s hard to argue that we’re more resilient since Superstorm Sandy, since we basically rebuilt in the same place,” he said.
        Prescott argues instead that some infrastructure and commercial zones should be moved back from the ocean instead of rebuilding in place and trying to hold the ocean back, which won’t work in the long term. Some businesses in Misquamicut, for example, have taken those steps and are more secure in their future.
        “I’m optimistic we can do it,” he said. “We have smart people in the state, good research being done at URI, and great modeling that homeowners can use. But homeowners have to understand their risk, and communities have to understand how to protect their assets without spending millions every year to shore them up. We need to take proactive steps now to embrace our resilience.”

        This article first appeared in the May 2021 issue of South County Life magazine.

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