Rhode Island’s Freshwater Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Plan is a continuous effort to evaluate the overall state of freshwater wetland protection and restoration programs in the state, and includes three levels of monitoring:
- Level 1: landscape scale, GIS (Geographic Information System) based assessment, to assess overall wetland condition using information from existing maps and aerial photos, such as land use adjacent to a wetland, i.e., buffer zones
- Level 2: field-based, rapid assessment to quickly assess a large number of wetlands, using a checklist to evaluate the condition of the wetland and potential wetland stressors
- Level 3: intensive, field-based efforts to measure physical and chemical parameters as well as one or more groups of organisms, such as plants, amphibians, or birds, to provide a more detailed and accurate picture of wetland health
Level 2, field-based rapid assessment, is the most often used level of monitoring in Rhode Island. In 2005, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM), in partnership with the Rhode Island Natural History Survey (RINHS), developed and refined a rapid assessment method (RIRAM) to determine the health of freshwater wetlands. RIRAM is based on established monitoring protocols drawn from other states combined with the expertise of local wetland scientists, as well as insights gained from continuous experience of its application in Rhode Island.
RIRAM is relatively straightforward, with limited need for specialized equipment: observers go to each freshwater wetland and use a standardized checklist to note the current conditions of the wetland and potential wetland stressors, such as how the surrounding land is used, and evidence of human activity on the wetland. The information gathered about freshwater wetland conditions using RIRAM provides Rhode Island with a long-term data set that can be analyzed over time to address short and long-term changes and develop or adapt appropriate management objectives.
RIRAM data and field data were not collected in 2014 and 2015, and focus was instead shifted to the preparation of several reports. Freshwater wetland monitoring using the RAM approach resumed in 2016.
Floristic Quality Assessment (FQA) is another rapid assessment tool that has shown good potential for indicating wetland condition in Rhode Island. This method uses the composition of vascular plant species to characterize the aggregate tolerance of the plant community to human disturbances. While FQA requires more time and expertise to conduct than RIRAM (still generally less than a day), it may be a more relevant indicator of restoration success because it focuses more on wetland response than stress.
Partnering to Restore Freshwater Wetlands
In summer of 2016, RIDEM partnered with Ducks Unlimited to undertake two major wetland restoration projects, with federal, state and private funding. Water control structures were replaced at the Great Swamp Management Area and the Woody Hill Management Area in Washington County, both of which are owned and managed by the RIDEM Division of Fish & Wildlife. Due to beaver dams, mud, and debris, the then-current water control structures were no longer effective,. Their replacements allowed managers to change water levels to imitate natural water cycles. Restoring the natural flow regime of the wetlands encourages healthy wetland habitat with diverse aquatic vegetation, which in turn provides improved habitat for waterfowl and many other species.