, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 381-394

Ecological footprints and shadows in an urban estuary, Narragansett Bay, RI (USA)

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Abstract

Because the rise of cities in North America was much later than in many other parts of the world, their connections to the hinterland were influenced early in their development by railroads and steam-powered water transport. These fossil fuel-based links made it possible to widely separate the “upstream” autotrophic supporting systems from the heterotrophic cities. Here, we take a different look at the connection between a city (Providence, RI, USA) and its supporting natural systems by focusing on the export of industrial and metabolic wastes from the city to the “downstream” coastal ecosystem in Narragansett Bay. In this way, we can track the history of a city by examining the concentrations of nutrients, metals, and hydrocarbons in the water and sediments of the estuary. In the greater Providence metropolitan area at the head of Narragansett Bay, there was rapid population and industrial expansion during the 1800s without the proper infrastructure to deal with water supply for public safety and health. On the other hand, the absence of a public water supply kept industrial and metabolic wastes largely on land. However, from the fall of 1871, on with the construction of a public water supply and sewer system, human wastes began flowing into the estuary. By reconstructing the historical record of metals and other pollutants, we illustrate clear temporal and spatial gradients of urban impact on the bay. Unfortunately, while numerous studies during the 1970s and 1980s focused on documenting metal and hydrocarbon pollution in the bay, there has been little effort to quantify the impact of mitigation efforts that have greatly reduced the input of metals and hydrocarbons to the system. Nutrient reductions are more recent and ongoing.