Environmental threat or esthetic enhancement?

Written by BARRET, CHRIS
Warwick Beacon Online
Tue, Jun 27 06

Phragmites australis is a weed. That may not be the scientific term but the green stalk-like plant is spreading along coastline in Warwick, few want it and it could cost thousands, if not millions, of dollars to remove.

"I'd rather catch it now, thinking that less restoration wouldn't cost as much if we let this thing spread it's going to cost more in manpower and dollars," says Michelle Komar, an environmental scientist and Warwick resident.

No one really knows where the plant came from and there is debate whether or not it is indigenous to North America. But most scientists agree the plant is wreaking havoc on everything from the environment to property values.

"For the most part Phragmites is an invasive species and is a monoculture and wherever it establishes on a salt marsh it overtakes the natural habitat so that dismisses the quality of that area," said James Boyd, a policy analyst at the Coastal Resources Management Council.

The plant grows quickly, with closely woven stalks that form almost a wall of green. In the fall it develops a tuft-like plume that many consider attractive. The 6- to 8-foot plant not only blocks the view, but forces out native vegetation. No one has a hard estimate on how many acres of coastline the plant has overtaken in Warwick but Komar said it.s spreading across dozens of acres, especially around Warwick Cove and Buckeye Brook.

"A sudden change of Phragmites taking hold signals there's something going on there," she said.

Komar didn't have any hard reasons why the plant is spreading but said an informal review shows it is more prevalent since the Warwick sewer project started in earnest a few years ago.

That may have shifted sediments into the water and provided a footing for Phragmites to grow. And Boyd said in Warwick, with its historically poor drainage, the conditions are ripe for growth of this unwelcome guest.

"It's the perfect avenue, the foothold for Phragmites to establish," Boyd said.

And once established, Phragmites is difficult to remove. Cutting it down doesn't work - it will grow back - burning it creates the same problem and spraying it with chemicals doesn't always work and can be just as harmful to the environment if not done properly.

"Phragmites is invasive in the sense that it can take off in disturbed habitats and really dominate the [sea] floor of a given area once it's come in," said John Torgan, Narragansett Bay keeper at Save the Bay.

So the state, and some cities, has resorted to full-scale restorations of Phragmites-invaded areas. In May, the city undertook a restoration project along Warwick Cove in partnership with the Cooperative Extension Education Center at the University of Rhode Island. The half-acre project included cleaning up an old dump, installing a Vortex drainage system to filter out the pollutants before drainage water reaches the cove and lowering the grade of the area so seawater would flood it. The lower grade means more seawater, which Phragmites has difficulty growing in.

The project took months of planning and the plants alone cost $13,800. Even so, the project at the upper reaches of the Cove was worth it, say officials.

"You would drive by there and you couldn.t see the cove," Boyd said. "Now you drive by and there's this beautiful view of Warwick Cove."

If restoration is to continue though, it's not going to happen overnight.

"It has to be done right and it has to be studied so you get the right solution," Komar said.

The CRMC has been working with other agencies to study the problem in Warwick and throughout the state. In Barrington, the agency worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore four acres along Allin.s Cove and remove hundreds of Phragmites plants. The cost: $1.2 million - a figure not easy to come up with for most cities and towns.

"It's really hard to come up with monies to have coastal habitat restoration when you have a $250 million [state] deficit; it's a little low on the priority list, unfortunately," Boyd said.

Yet, the Barrington project represented just a slice of hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of marshland taken over by Phragmites. The plant grows up and down Narragansett Bay from Providence to Narragansett and even finds a home in drainage ditches off highways.

"We've seen greater than 60 percent loss of coastal wetlands due to filling and wetland filling and disturbance and what remains in degraded," Torgan said.

That means those areas receive poor circulation and are out of reach of the tide and salt water - the only real permit solution to stopping the spread of Phragmites.

As a stopgap, cities such as Warwick can clear out drainage ditches and install sewage systems to eliminate pools of water. But until major work is done, it appears the city is stuck with the unwanted plant that shows no signs of going away.