Saving the Bay, One Salt Marsh at a Time

Wading through ecology with Wenley Ferguson, Save the Bay’s head of restoration


It’s about striped bass and bluefish, quiet places to walk by the water and homes along the shore. For 24 years, Wenley Ferguson has worked for Save the Bay. As their restoration coordinator, she has helped restore damaged marshland ecosystems after human development or natural sea level rise altered their environment.

Save the Bay’s mission to protect Narragansett Bay and its watershed is an extensive task. Wenley is often juggling more than a dozen projects at one time, in multiple stages of development. Most of the marsh sites are located in Rhode Island, with a few in Massachusetts. Wenley works with town and city leaders, federal, state and local environmental groups, and many volunteers, from original assessment to restored marshland. The first step is to hammer out a plan, depending on what a specific site needs. Problems addressed may include flooding in heavy rains or loss of fish habitat. Save the Bay helps with both design and implementation, utilizing funding from local, state and federal sources. Wenley says it’s not a solitary effort. “We’ve been on the ground working with partners for about 15 years,” she explains.

It’s not an easy task. In some cases, culverts installed years ago are now clogged. Wind and storms affect the way water flows into and out of a marsh. Canadian geese can do a considerable amount of damage by feeding on the roots of marsh plants. Once the plants are gone, the stability of the marsh is affected. Healthy plants can build up soil and keep up with sea level rise, which she says has increased over the last century due to climate change. Wenley explains that it doesn’t take much to affect the delicate ecosystem: “marshes historically have pools and fish habitat but if one continually has water, it’s not going to survive. In a marsh, an extra millimeter a year can be enough to make or break it.”

Save the Bay modifications may include removing standing water that is damaging vegetation. This can be accomplished in various ways, including removing tidal restrictions or creating micro channels that draw water away from the land. Native grasses are an important part of the marsh ecosystem. The restoration process often involves planting specific types of grasses depending on the elevation. Lower marsh grasses can handle being flooded twice in 24 hours, higher marsh grasses only occasionally.

Current Projects

Among the current projects Wenley has underway are two in Barrington: Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Beach and Barrington Beach, which is just a short distance away along the shore. Late in March, Wenley met at the RISD site with RISD supervisor for buildings and grounds, Joe Melo. Joe said it’s not just a job. He sees preserving the marsh as a legacy to his children and grandchildren. “It means a lot because we’re saving the marsh,” he says. “Pretty soon, if we didn’t do this, the marsh would be gone.”

During the RISD site visit, Wenley and Joe talked about water drainage and the work still to be done. Algal mats had formed on areas of the lower marsh, signaling standing water that kills vegetation and reduces the ability of the marsh to regenerate new plants. They discussed the best approaches to drain the water as well as upcoming dates for planting beach grasses. Wenley commented on how last fall’s plantings in one area were holding up. “I’m very excited to see how the high marsh has responded,” she says. “If we hadn’t done this project all these little tufts of grass you can see out here would have been gone after this year.”

Just a few days later, Wenley was back on site at Barrington Beach. She worked with about a dozen volunteers to plant beach grass on low sand dunes recently put in place by town workers. The dunes create a buffer zone between the parking lot and the high tide line. The grasses, once established, will help hold the sand in place. Sally Johnson and Barry Atkinson were among the volunteers. Barry commented on the work: “it’s kind of like eating ribs. You kind of get down and dirty in it. You’ve just gotta dig in, there’s no knife or fork.” Sally, from Riverside, said she has a background in Marine Studies and a desk job, and was delighted to be able to be doing something meaningful outside on one of the first nice days of the spring season. As she dug holes and planted little tufts of beach grass in sand, she said, “it’s amazing to think any plant would prefer this way to grow.”

Wenley says beach grass is one of the quickest plantings to see results. In many projects, restoration is slow, and is often affected by the time it takes to find funding. “Securing funding for the projects continues to be an ongoing challenge.”

Working With Nature

There are a number of resources Wenley and those who work with her utilize when improving an ecosystem. Old aerial photographs and observation of current conditions at low and high tide levels are helpful. Wenley says the changes noted while monitoring a marsh are sometimes dramatic. “At Gooseneck Cove (in Newport) we watched the change in marsh elevation,” she says. “The marsh was literally sinking.” At that site a new culvert improved the tidal flow to bring life back to the marsh; osprey and snapping turtles, blue crabs and egrets were later spotted in the area.

In many cases, Save the Bay projects allow salt water back into an area where it had been blocked, naturally bringing some balance back into an ecosystem. Silver Creek, a 13-acre salt marsh at the northern end of Bristol, is one of the places where this concept was utilized. Work at Silver Creek involved removing tidal restrictions, including fill on a walking path. The fill was removed and replaced with a boardwalk, which allowed access without severely affecting tidal flow. Once tidal flow was restored, salt water killed off invasive Phragmites that had taken over some of the area.

Some projects require heavy equipment to affect major changes, from creating a new path for water to flow in and out of the bay to more technical improvements. At Big Mussachuck Creek in Barrington, Save the Bay and partners installed a self-regulated tide gate. The gate improves tidal flow, reduces flooding and offers improved fish habitat in several adjacent bodies of water. Opening up or replacing blocked culverts is often an integral part of marsh restoration. At Jacob’s Point in Warren, three new culverts were installed under a footpath, the clogged creek was cleared and new fish reservoirs created.

In Westerly, Save the Bay staff and town employees worked with volunteers on a project at Winnapaug Pond. Mosquito abatement strategies were part of the goals for the project. An excavator and hand tools were employed to dig small creeks, allowing trapped marsh water to drain. Wenley wrote about the project and says initial results showed marsh plants becoming reestablished and life returning. “During restoration, as the water began to drain off the marsh, a variety of shorebirds migrating to northern breeding grounds foraged in the newly exposed mud flats.”

Some of the projects have taken 15 years from the initial planning, through funding, permitting and implementation. Even when the planned site work is complete, it’s not forgotten. Wenley says the projects are revisited on occasion to see how the work is holding up, what changes may have occurred and what future adaptations may be needed. As she explains, “Funding ends, but there’s no such thing as being done with a project.”