The Ponds of Roger Williams Park

An excess of civilization threatens the classic beauty of the ponds at this historic urban park.

This story was first published in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine in April 2012. The topic was my idea, inspired by the work being done by the Park and its partners to clean up the ponds. It was a real pleasure, as always, to work with the editorial staff at RIM, and a privilege to spend time with the many dedicated and hard-working advocates for our historic and under-appreciated Park. The story was awarded First Place for reporting on science and the environment in 2012, by the Rhode Island Press Association. 

Trouble in Paradise

Most visitors to Roger Williams Park drive right up to their destination — the Zoo, or the Botanical Gardens, or the Carousel — and don’t venture far into the park’s 435 sprawling acres of rolling hills and trees and waterways. But if you drive in through the main gate off Elmwood Avenue, then circle past the Victorian Gardens and park at the Casino, you can find your way beyond the back porch, down a steep grassy hillside, to Roosevelt Lake. The pond’s gently curving shores stretch past an ornate bandstand that’s seen better days and encircle a sturdy stone building called the Seal House, its windows boarded over, its steep slate roof caving in. In the middle of the shallow pond, a cement pedestal still stands, where sea lions once basked in the sun. The place has a Victorian-era charm, worn-down and neglected, but with a lingering beauty. Here, according to Tom Ardito, lies the true heart of the Park, a compact space that abundantly demonstrates why this pond, like the six other park ponds it connects to, is in such deep trouble.

As we visit the pond on a sunny winter afternoon, Ardito shows me the most obvious problem. A mixed flock of dozens of Canada geese, mallard ducks, and seagulls gathers here, trampling the shoreline into a mucky mess as they compete for free handouts, mostly shreds of stale bread, from park visitors. 

“These birds are not healthy,” says Ardito. “They’re too fat, and you can tell from those malformed wings that they’re malnourished.”

Some of the geese have rumpled feathers sticking out at odd angles, a condition called “angel wing” that can render them unable to fly. It’s believed to be caused by a poor diet that prevents proper muscle development. The waddling, oversize birds eagerly accept visitors’ handouts, but they are turned into ground-bound beggars, not the sleek wild creatures they ought to be.

The handouts are not good for the geese, and the geese are not good for the park. “There are about 350 or so Canada geese that are living in the park year-round now,” says Ardito. They’ve stopped migrating, because free food is so abundant. Every day, winter and summer, they quickly process all that stale bread into droppings — as much as a pound per day per goose. The droppings litter grassy areas and sidewalks around the park, interfering with picnics and mucking up shoes. But the bigger problem is that most of the droppings end up in the ponds, where they help create an over-fertilized soup that stimulates the growth of weeds and algae.

By midsummer, as the water warms up, mats of weeds cover the ponds from shore to shore, making it hard to paddle a canoe or kayak. The vegetation is so thick, it prevents the air from mixing with the water, degrading the habitat for fish. By last September, the growth of algae got so bad that for the first time, the park posted warnings on trees around the park: “Due to toxic algae conditions,” the signs read, “people and pets should not have any contact with the water in the ponds until further notice.” According to the World Health Organization, contact with toxic algae can cause skin irritation, stomach cramps, nausea, headache, rashes, and even liver damage. Rentals of the swan paddleboats from the Boathouse were suspended for two weeks.

Ardito, who works as policy coordinator for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, is one of a growing network of environmental experts, artists, fishers, and neighbors advocating for change in the park. Over the winter, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Parks Department $424,000 to study the water-quality problem, come up with a plan, and start to make some changes. The city pledged to match that amount in work hours and funds. It’s a start, says Ardito, “but that’s barely scratching the surface, to do what we need to do here.”

The challenges are daunting — it’s not just geese and shoreline erosion that are affecting the water, but everything else that’s going on uphill from the ponds. From the muddy edge of Roosevelt Lake, Ardito points out the abundance of pavement in every direction. There’s never much traffic here, but the divided road stretches wide enough for four cars or more, with hard-edged curbs on each side. Every time it rains, the asphalt channels rainwater into storm drains that empty into the pond, bringing along oil, trash, and grit. And the same is true for all the paved surfaces within the park’s watershed, that is, all the local terrain that’s uphill from the level of the ponds.

The first phase of the park’s water-quality study produced a 200-page report, published in January, with maps outlining, for the first time, the precise limits of the local watershed. Everything that goes on in these neighborhoods, comprising parts of Edgewood, Washington Park, and a sliver along Elmwood Avenue, affects the park ponds. Storm drains along the curbs empty into pipes that drain into the ponds, carrying in sediments and trash from sidewalks and roads. Lawn chemicals and pet droppings add to the fertilizer overload from the geese, feeding the summer algae blooms. When residents wash their cars, soapy water runs down the driveway into a storm drain, and pollutes the park waterways. When icy steps are treated with salt and roads are sanded in winter, it all washes away into the ponds.

• • •

Keeping the seven ponds functional as a healthy ecosystem is complicated by the fact that they aren’t really a natural feature. When Betsey Williams, a descendant of Roger Williams, donated the park property to the city of Providence in 1871, it was mostly pastures and farmland, with patches of forest. A stream ran through it, surrounded by marshes and bogs. Landscape architect Horace Cleveland drafted a plan to drain some wetlands and excavate others to create the chain of ponds, integrating the design with walkways and roads so visitors are nearly always in sight of the water.

Starting from a dam near the Park Avenue entrance, the seven ponds — Elm, Cunliff, Edgewood, Pleasure, Willow, Polo, and Roosevelt — snake through the park. The design today retains its classic beauty, creating an inviting landscape of rolling hills and sylvan views. But the dredged-out ponds average only four to six feet deep. The shallow depth means the water warms up fast in the summer, and the slow current allows sediments from runoff to settle quickly to the bottom, reducing the depth even more. Warm water holds less oxygen, making it harder for fish to thrive here. The most abundant fish in the park is carp, an invasive species that can tolerate the degraded conditions.

Superintendent Robert McMahon has worked at Roger Williams Park for more than 25 years, and he knows all too well the challenges of maintaining a Victorian-era landscape in a post-modern world. His office, on the second floor of the Boathouse, overlooks Pleasure Lake, so when the ponds turn green in the summer, and when flocks of geese settle in to spend the winter, he’s keenly aware of it. The ponds make up nearly a quarter of the park’s acreage, and keeping them healthy and attractive is a high priority. “Even if you don’t use the ponds, they’re an important part of the visual landscape,” he says. “The algae in the ponds creates the sense that this is not a healthy place, that something’s wrong. A visual improvement in the ponds, if they look clean and not green, will make people feel better about coming to the park. It would encourage more boating activity and get more people out onto the water.”

Plenty of people already use the park, with various counts estimating annual visitation from about a million to as high as 3.5 million per year. About a half million come from around the region to visit the Zoo, McMahon says, and thousands more come to events like a concert at the Temple to Music, a wedding at the Casino, or weekend walk-a-thon fundraisers. Only about 3,000 per year rent the park’s paddleboats or canoes to explore the waterways. The “natural landscape experience” — simply having a picnic on the shore or taking a walk along the trails — is the “most modest use” of the park, McMahon says. Yet the waterways create the background, the setting, for all the other uses, and he’s hopeful that as their appearance improves, more people will come to the park to enjoy them.

But finding the resources and the funding to maintain and improve the park has never been easy. “The park’s use and its perception has changed over the generations,” says McMahon. In the late 1800s, when the park was built, more people lived and worked in the city, and trolley cars brought residents directly to the park gates. But by the mid-1900s, families were moving to the suburbs, freeways made it easier to get to the beaches, and the park for many years was neglected. Over the last few decades, sporadic infusions of cash have gone to expand the Zoo, restore the Carousel, create the Botanical Center, and more, but the funding stream for day-to-day operations and maintenance has always been unreliable.

Today, despite the numbers of visitors to the park, given the multitude of demands on stressed government budgets, “big capital improvements are not on the radar screen,” says McMahon. Yet the park retains its classic landscape design, its majestic trees, a diversity of attractions, an enduring beauty. It still has an important role to play in the life of the neighborhoods, the city, the watershed, and the state. “The big challenge is going to be how to do more, with less,” says McMahon.

• • •

The overabundance of geese and the runoff from roads and nearby neighborhoods aren’t the only challenges facing the park ponds. Back at Roosevelt Lake, behind the Casino, a gracefully curved, hand-built stone culvert frames a four-foot-wide pipe that empties into the far western end of the pond, across from the bandstand. That pipe carries into the park the overflow from another pond system, nearly a mile away, to the north and west of the park, hidden within a densely urbanized neighborhood on the far side of Route 95.

Satellite maps of this upper watershed reveal a morass of crowded residential streets, sprawling industrial buildings, and acres and acres of parking lots surrounding Mashapaug Pond, Spectacle Pond, and Tongue Pond. Every rainfall flushes a load of silt and debris from these hard surfaces straight into storm drains that empty into the ponds, which already carry a legacy of toxic wastes from 20th century industries. The overflow from Mashapaug then finds its way into that underground pipe, and drains into Roosevelt Lake. This upper watershed, which straddles the Cranston-Providence border, is even bigger than the local watershed immediately surrounding the park.

It would be easy to live in Providence or Cranston for years and never notice any of these three urban ponds, secluded at the bottom of dead-end roads and behind rusty chain-link fences. But bass fisherman Jim Johnson knows them well. One warm January morning, he drove me to a half-dozen stops along their shores, revealing not only a ragged trashy wasteland, but also hidden places where the natural charm and beauty of the ponds, against all odds, endures.

On the western shore of Mashapaug Pond, we see examples of both. At a small public park, abundant trees overhang the shoreline, and a boat ramp allows easy access for fishing. But signs posted in English, Spanish, and Cambodian warn visitors not to swim in the pond or eat fish that are caught there. That’s not a concern for Johnson, since like many sport fishers, he prefers to catch-and-release. But the poor water quality means only those fish that can tolerate pollution will thrive here.

Mashapaug Pond, like the park ponds, is “infested with carp,” says Johnson. These non-native fish can grow to huge proportions, weighing as much as 30 pounds. “They root along the bottom to feed, stirring up the toxic bottom sediments,” says Johnson. “They’re part of the problem, degrading the habitat for other fish.” He hopes the effort to clean up the watershed will include a plan to eradicate the carp, creating an opportunity for healthier, more diverse fish populations to thrive.

photo courtesy nbep

 

He knows that recovering from nearly 200 years of abuse and neglect won’t be easy. “Before there was the Clean Water Act [in 1972], factories could do whatever they wanted,” Johnson says. “They used all these ponds for dumping grounds. The cleanup is going to be a long-term thing. But if we can improve the water quality, fishing will improve.” The goal should be to allow fishing not only for sport, but also for food, he says. Despite the signs that forbid it, nobody doubts that some of the fish caught in Mashapaug, and along the shores in Roger Williams Park, are taken home for dinner.

• • •

While it’s easy to see the connection between toxic factory waste and water pollution, it can be harder for people to see cute and friendly Canada geese as agents of destruction. But it’s not hard for Wenley Ferguson, restoration director at Save The Bay, who works every day to bring degraded wetlands back to health. As we talk over coffee at a café in Pawtuxet Village, she says Canada geese are a problem not just in Roger Williams Park, but around the state. “In salt marshes, the geese will dig up plants to expose the roots, and prey on them,” she says. “We’re seeing real impacts on the health of these ecosystems.” Everywhere along the bay shoreline where people feed the geese, she sees erosion, concentrations of goose droppings that over-fertilize the water, and trampled vegetation.

Efforts to stabilize or decrease the population by finding nests and shaking, or addling, the eggs are doomed to fail, she says. “Canada geese live up to 20 years. The logistics of addling are not really effective.” The best solution is for people to stop feeding them. “In all my efforts to educate the public about this,” she says, “I’ve found that what resonates best is when they understand that feeding the geese is not good for the geese.” Ferguson is hopeful that if McMahon and his staff can get that message across, and plant shoreline buffers to discourage the birds from coming ashore for handouts, the number of geese in the park will decline.

The runoff problem, says Ferguson, is comparitively easy to solve, in theory, but there’s another hurdle — the funding isn’t there. One possible strategy that’s gaining traction around the state is the creation of stormwater utility districts. “Landowners would be assessed a fee for hard surfaces, and that would go into a fund to pay for the management of stormwater,” says Ferguson. The system would create incentives for landowners to reduce runoff from their properties. The towns of Middletown and Westerly have been working with the state Department of Environmental Management to study the concept. “This is the long-term solution,” Ferguson says, and it could be key to addressing the runoff from the upper watershed into the park ponds.

Despite the challenges, Ferguson is confident that degraded waterways can be returned to health. “Nobody believed, 20 years ago, that we would be restoring fish to the Pawtuxet River,” she says. Twenty years ago, the river was a toxic mess, polluted by runoff and industrial waste and used as a dumping ground. “But look at it now,” says Ferguson. Not far from our café, the river flows into Narragansett Bay, and in summer, fishers are often seen casting from the bridge, as kayaks paddle by below. “We’ve made real progress.”

• • •

On a cold, clear February night, beneath a brilliant full moon, McMahon and Ardito hosted a public meeting in the Casino, a building that reflects in many ways the challenges and charms that pervade the park. The wide porches, the tall windows and abundant wood paneling, the view of trees and hills and Roosevelt Lake, emanate a serene and classic beauty — yet the paint is chipped and fading, the landscaping seems a bit neglected, and inside, the floorboards squeak noisily with every step, sometimes drowning out the speakers.

As 50 or so people settled into their folding chairs with cups of tea and cider, McMahon told them that visitors to the park this summer will see changes starting to take place. Permanent signs will be posted around the pond shorelines, identifying each one by name, and listing a few facts that distinguish it.

“It’s hard to love something, if you don’t know its name,” said McMahon.

At five or six sites around the park, unnecessary pavement will be torn up. Swales and rain gardens will be constructed to collect runoff so it can percolate slowly into the ground, instead of rushing straight into the ponds with a load of silt and fertilizer. Shorelines will be replanted to discourage geese from coming ashore for handouts, and some of the geese might be removed. Large signs will be placed at the Carousel, the Museum, and other places where people congregate, to explain what’s being done, and why.

The audience at the Casino was generally receptive to the park plans, but they represent a small fraction of the park users. When summer crowds arrive, new signs might not be enough to convince them that it’s a bad idea to feed the birds in the ponds. Park neighbors might not be eager to limit their use of fertilizers or direct their runoff to rain gardens and barrels instead of into storm drains. Industrial property owners in the upper watershed might not be willing to get rid of excess pavement. The management plan calls for teams of volunteers to be deployed over the summer, in the park and in the watersheds, to try to change those behaviors.

Tom Ardito, of the NBEP, believes that improving the water quality in the park is worth all that effort, with results not only for park visitors, but for everyone in Rhode Island. After spilling over the dam at Elm Lake, the waters from the park flow into a stream that winds its way through woods and wetlands to the Pawtuxet River. Just last summer, after 10 years of planning, an old concrete dam on that river was removed, just upstream from the bridge in Pawtuxet Village. Fish now can migrate up the river from the Bay to spawn for the first time in generations. All it would take, Ardito says, is a fish ladder around the Elm Lake dam to bring those fish even farther upstream, into the park ponds. It would be one more step in a long-term vision to restore healthy aquatic ecosystems throughout the state, after two centuries of industrialization and neglect.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Ardito says. “And it may be virtually impossible for these waters ever to be safe for fishing and swimming, without moving everyone out of the watershed. But we need to recognize what needs to be done, and we can put these ponds on a trajectory toward being a productive part of the Bay ecosystem.”

 And if that happens, perhaps the seven ponds of Roger Williams Park — Elm, Cunliff, Edgewood, Pleasure, Willow, Polo, and Roosevelt — can fulfill the vision of their Victorian-era design, creating an island of serene and bountiful nature in the midst of our stormy urban sea.

What about the trash?

Visitors to the park may not realize the geese or even the algae blooms create water-quality problems, but one thing they all notice is the trash. The pond shorelines collect debris from storm drains, litter that blows in from the park and the neighborhoods, and overflow from park trash cans. Park Superintendent Robert McMahon says considering the constant influx of trash and the many miles of shoreline in the park, his staff does a pretty good job of cleanup. “Some areas are problematic,” he admits. “But believe it or not, we’ve made progress. It’s not as bad as it used to be.” He hopes that public-outreach efforts about the ponds will increase awareness and help speed improvement. The trash is unsightly, but as a water-quality issue, it’s far down on the list of concerns.


 

Multimedia

Click here to view a short youtube video about the park issues, featuring an interview with Parks Superintendent Bob McMahon. (If anyone knows the trick to get WordPress to embed a video, please email me!)

Click here to view a short narrated slideshow about the 2012 park clean-up, which was posted on EcoRI.


 

Pitch in for the Park!

In February, NBEP announced the creation of the Roger Williams Park Conservancy to help involve the public in improving the park. Volunteers are needed year-round to help with educational outreach, water-quality monitoring, planting, and more. Go to http://www.nbep.org for more information.

Another local group, the Urban Pond Procession, brings together artists, educators, and citizens to promote stewardship of Mashapaug, Spectacle, and Tongue Ponds. Once a year, in June, UPP organizes a procession from the upper watershed to the park to celebrate their connection, ending at the Temple to Music. Go to http://www.urbanpondprocession.org for details.

A number of local groups are working to help restore our local ecosystems to health. Virtually all of them operate with constricted budgets and overworked, dedicated staff.  Here are just a few of them who are deserving of your support:


Learn more about the water quality issues at the Park:

Roger Williams Park Ponds Water Quality Management Plan (PDF), January 2012.

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