Salt marsh project helps nature and golfers

AFTER: A $7.7 million project that brought together Rhode Island Country Club, Save the Bay and government officials has removed the hated reeds and restored the marsh. /
AFTER: A $7.7 million project that brought together Rhode Island Country Club, Save the Bay and government officials has removed the hated reeds and restored the marsh. /

It sounds like a plague that Greek gods would rain down on their enemies: phragmites (pronounced frag-mighties). It may not be the product of gods’ wrath, but the Rhode Island Country Club certainly considers it a plague.

Phragmites is a wetland reed that cannot tolerate salt water and is often found on golf courses. But it soon will be gone from the Barrington club, which is nearing completion of a $7.7 million project to eradicate the reed on the golf course.

Members endorsed the project because the plant was turning the turf on a number of holes into big green sponges. As an added annoyance, it blocked the view of where golf balls were heading.

But the unusually expensive undertaking is not only about members’ convenience and the quality of play; it is also about the quality of the natural environment.

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A decade ago, Save the Bay approached the club’s greens superintendent, Peter Lund, with a plan to restore the salt marsh and fish run in the Mussachuck Creek – which runs through and beside seven of the holes of the course.

The creek runs from Narragansett Bay into Echo Lake, a dammed pond that had become a spawning ground for alewife and blueback herring, and beyond to Brickyard Pond.

A tidal gate installed in the 1950s, after Hurricane Carol hit the state, was no longer doing its job.

The gate was meant to keep a large surge from inundating the course, while allowing the salt water to continue to wash into and out of the salt marshes, cleaning them and providing a path for the fish to reach their birthing grounds. But over time, the gate malfunctioned, allowing less and less of the Bay water to reach the marsh (and fewer and fewer of the herring to make it back to spawn). The change from salt marsh to slightly brackish wetlands also allowed the phragmites to invade, destroying turf near the water.

The tidal gate was not the only impediment to the natural tidal cleansing of the ecosystem – the inlet where the creek washed into the Bay was also silting up.

Before it was all over, the project turned massive and involved a number of governmental bodies.

“It’s what we call cooperative conservation,” said Joe Bachand, a resource conservationist with the National Resource Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Stephen Carlotti, president of the RICC, said the Conservation Service approached the club nearly five years ago, wanting to restore the salt water estuary. “We thought it was simple,” he said. “But it was not.”

The first step to restoring the fish run and the health of the salt marsh was to dredge the creek bed from the tidal gate out to the Bay, allowing the water to easily flow in and out of the marsh.

But because of silting, the dredging had to continue upstream past the tidal gate (which is part of the bridge over the creek on Washington Road).

Now that the dredging is done, the marsh will be flooded more than before, turning low-lying areas of the golf course into unplayable wetlands. As a result, the environmental bodies allowed the club to build up some fairways and tees, which should turn areas of the course that were often unplayable because of the phragmites and water into firmer turf.

At the same time, the club opened up more areas of the marsh, including dredging out a tee box that sat in the middle of the marsh on the seventh hole and building a tidal pond between the tee and green on the fifth hole. In all, 2.5 acres of new marsh have been added, said Bachand.

The refreshed golf course has come at quite a price, however. While the National Resource Conservation Service, Save The Bay and other environmental groups have contributed a total of about $400,000 to the project, the club has picked up the rest of the tab – including $1.1 million RICC is spending to replace the course’s irrigation system – financed over 20 years by Bank Rhode Island.

“They have been fabulous,” David Piccerelli, second vice president of RICC and chairman of the club’s restoration committee, said of the bank.

Although part of the payment came when the club sold 12 acres of land on the northwest corner of its property adjacent to Washington Road to the Barrington Land Conservation Trust for $2 million, the club is still facing a hefty bill.

Yet, according to the club, only a handful of members have resigned because of the undertaking. Perhaps one reason the members aren’t worried is the CVS/pharmacy Charity Classic golf tournament that RICC hosts every year. The three-day event draws many of the game’s biggest names to the course, a classic opened in 1911 and designed by Donald Ross, one of golf’s greatest architects.

Without the revenue generated by the CVS tournament, the club would have been hard-pressed to take on the environmental project. But the tournament also created some tight deadlines.

The newly sodded ground needs to grow in for six weeks before the June 17 to 19 event. That means that the 19 acres of sod has to be in place by the end of April, so work must start at the beginning of that month.
Thanks to the mild winter (the last few weeks notwithstanding), the project is on schedule.

Bachand said the wetlands project will benefit all of Rhode Island. Hundreds of thousands of adult herring may return to spawn, which will improve the health of both the fresh- and salt-water fisheries in the area.

The project, which restored 160 acres of habitat, is one of some two dozen under way in the state, but the only one involving a golf course. Wenley Ferguson, restoration coordinator for Save The Bay, said the success of the restoration will allow environmental groups to use it as a showcase to begin discussions with other golf courses in the state.

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