Environmental monitoring is essential to the effective management of our natural systems and allows us to quantitatively observe how the ecosystems in and around Narragansett Bay change over time.

Systematic, long-term monitoring often provides the first warning when our environment is changing beyond the range of expected natural fluctuations. Monitoring data may indicate what is causing or contributing to that change and provide the scientific basis to identify the most appropriate actions needed to reduce the stressor, protect resources, or prepare for impacts. Monitoring allows us to determine if existing management efforts are adequate or whether modified or new strategies are needed to protect a deteriorating aspect of the environment.

Kayakers enjoy the Narrow River in Narragansett, RI, which is regularly monitored by citizen scientists and RIDEM. Image courtesy of the Coastal Institute.

Continuous, uninterrupted monitoring programs are critically important as data gaps make it more difficult to identify data patterns and long-term trends and may jeopardize researchers’ ability to perform meaningful statistical analyses. Natural ecosystems are dynamic and as a result data sets may exhibit a high degree of variability year to year due to the weather and other factors. Consistent, long-term data collection is essential to discern trends and provide the information needed to answer questions about changes occurring in the environment.

Despite its importance, environmental monitoring doesn’t grab a lot of attention or make headlines. Often taken for granted, it’s an activity that is vulnerable to funding cuts when budgets are constrained. Any savings may be short-sighted as disruption in core environmental monitoring programs may leave decision-makers without the information they need to steer investments in the most effective manner to protect, restore, and sustainably manage our natural resources.  Cutbacks in data gathering can have negative ripple effects on our ability to measure short-term and long-term indicators of environment health that are integral to scientific research, policy development and management decision-making.

Public Benefits of Environmental Monitoring

Monitoring is used to document variability in the environment over time, which then provides a baseline against which to compare how the environment is impacted by natural disasters as well as global, regional, and local human activity. In addition, monitoring allows managers to assess the progress of restoration restoration projects and the effectiveness of specific management strategies.

Local oyster aquaculturist at work. Image courtesy of Watershed Counts.

The data generated are needed to sustainably manage the many beneficial uses of our natural resources both now and into the future. Monitoring is a mission-critical activity within resource management programs including managing commercial and recreational fisheries management and pumping freshwater from reservoirs and aquifers. It yields the information needed to gauge the effectiveness of specific management strategies including on-going efforts to restore degraded water quality and habitats.

Monitoring is also essential to the protection of public health. For example, shellfish growing areas are routinely monitored for harmful pathogens as well as naturally occurring harmful algae which may release toxins. The data gathered supports management decisions on when and where shellfish can be safely harvested for human consumption. Beaches are also monitored with the aim of preventing exposure to water quality conditions that might cause illness.

Another way monitoring data are used is the process of assessing damage to the natural environment as a direct result of human actions. The party responsible for the environmental damage can be legally responsible for the restoration of the damage caused. This complicated process involves a number of state and federal laws and oversight by state and federal regulatory agencies, but the common factor in determining what the responsible party must restore is having a baseline assessment of environmental condition before the damage occurred. This baseline is developed through environmental monitoring. A local example of this is the continued restoration efforts following the 1996 North Cape oil spill that impacted sensitive habitats in southern Rhode Island and Block Island Sound, which, without baselines created by monitoring efforts, would have been stymied.