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Narragansett Bay Natl Estuary Pgm

Case Authors

Colin Hume, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program was established in 1987. It was one of the first designations of the National Estuary Program that was created by Congress to address concerns for the health of the nation’s estuaries.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency convened a Management Conference of federal, state, local and non-governmental parties. The conference developed a Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan, which established conservation goals.

The program carries out education, restoration, advocacy and capacity-building activities to support the conservation goals. It has synthesized disparate sources of environmental data, providing decision-makers with valuable and necessary information. It helps maintain an ecosystem level focus on problems affecting the bay.

The program faces challenges from its institutional arrangement, funding limitations, and recent conflicts with state-level management plans.

MEBM Attributes

  • Scale: Focusing on an ecosystem-scaled approach to problems in the Narragansett Bay.
  • Collaboration: Focusing on developing partnerships to address environmental problems.
  • Complexity: Monitoring of environmental indicators to generate information for decision-makers.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program has established a mission statement that is focused on protecting and preserving the bay and its watershed through partnerships that conserve and restore natural resources, enhance water quality and promote community involvement.


The following objectives have been established:

  • Promote a holistic perspective of Narragansett Bay and its watershed that includes social, economic and environmental aspects.
  • Coordinate actions to protect and restore coastal ecosystems.
  • Initiate and manage restoration plans and projects.
  • Use collaboration and partnerships to address common goals.
  • Identify information needs; acquire, interpret and disseminate data to support informed, science-based decision-making.
  • Stimulate discussion on Bay issues and bringing expertise through public workshops, professional forums and scientific symposia and reporting on the results
  • Effectively keep the public and policy-makers informed of bay and watershed issues.
  • Match resources to management needs through grants and partnerships.
  • Support local watershed organizations in implementation and training initiatives.
  • Convene and coordinate interagency technical teams and workgroups such as the Partnership for Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island Habitat Restoration Team, and the Dissolved Oxygen Strike Team.

Key Parties

Lead Organization

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Key Parties


  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • U.S. Department of Agricultural Natural Resources Conservation Service


  • Rhode Island Department of Environmental Protection
  • Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council
  • Rhode Island Bays Rivers and Watersheds Coordination Team
  • Rhode Island Department of Administrative State Planning Program
  • Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection


  • Save The Bay
  • Blackstone River Coalition
  • Taunton River Watershed Alliance


Program Structure

Management Committee

The Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program is overseen by a Management Committee composed of representatives of Rhode Island and Massachusetts environmental and resource management agencies, local environmental groups, and other stakeholders. The committee guides implementation of the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan and establishes annual program priorities.

Policy Committee

Additionally, the NBEP is in the process of forming a Policy Committee, which would set broad direction for the program, and attempt to resolve differences between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. This committee would be composed of the heads of state agencies from the two states.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

Concerned for the failing health of the nation’s estuaries, Congress identified Narragansett Bay as one of four large estuaries to be studied in a pilot program established in 1985. The Narragansett Bay Project was established as a joint effort of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Narragansett Bay was designated as a participant in the National Estuary Program following the 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act. The program transitioned from research to focus on addressing management issues.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

Narragansett Bay is a temperate, well-mixed estuary, enclosed by land to the east, north and west. It opens onto Rhode Island Sound and Block Island to the south. The estuary stretches across 192 square miles, mostly in Rhode Island. A small portion of the estuary is in Massachusetts.

The bay is shallow, and includes 156 miles of shoreline, including offshore islands. It includes many habitat types, such as open water, salt marshes, subtidal bottom habitat and brackish waters. Estuaries are areas of high biological productivity and abundant wildlife, including birds, fish, crabs, lobsters, marine mammals, clams, and reptiles.


Human impacts to the ecosystem are widespread and have grown in severity since early Colonial times. Fishing and the effects of industrialization diminished the stocks of pelagic and anadromous fish by the mid 1880s. Fisheries have shifted to the coastal waters. Today, shellfish remains the most important commercial fishery in the bay.

About 13 million tons of cargo is imported into the bay each year. Shipping has led to modification of the shoreline, dredging and invasive species.

Pollution has contaminated sediments and mud found in the bay, although many sources of pollutants have been eliminated. Industries had been a source of toxic chemicals and metals. Wastewater had been poorly treated or untreated before entering the bay. Today, nutrient-rich stormwater and run-off are the greatest sources of pollution in the bay.


Major Strategies

The Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program uses the following strategies to advance its conservation goals:

  • Education and outreach to communities.
  • Building the capacity of small non-governmental organizations.
  • Identifying and filling information gaps for decision-makers.
  • Restoration projects.
  • Advocacy at national and local levels.
  • Management Committee provides forum for building consensus and making collaborative decisions.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Currents of Change

The Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program developed a systematic monitoring network that combines all relevant environmental indicator data into a comprehensive framework to evaluate and track environmental trends throughout the Narragansett Bay region, and to communicate the trends to decision-makers and community members. 


Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program has realized the following accomplishments and impacts:

  • Provided an ecosystem focus to the problems facing the bay.
  • Facilitated the development of partnerships aimed at improving the health of the ecosystem.
  • Facilitated collaborative decision-making that incorporated the multitude of federal, state and local government authorities with jurisdictions within the boundaries of the ecosystem.
  • Increased capacity of partner organizations and non-governmental organizations through targeted grants and seed money.
  • Conducted restoration activities that have improved environmental conditions in the region.

Factors Facilitating Progress

The Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program has been facilitated by the following factors:

  • Flexibility in Defining its Direction: Although the original management plan was unworkable, the staff of the program had enough autonomy and flexibility to define a realistic direction for the program. Yearly work plans are developed by the staff and submitted for the approval of the Management Committee. The plans can adapt to the dynamic conditions of the bay.
  • Dedicated and Skilled Individuals: The program benefitted from individuals with particular skill sets. The right people were in place to identify emerging problems and determine where to focus resources for maximum impact. Their array of specializations provided expertise on the primary ecosystem and sociopolitical components of the bay.
  • Seed Money: Having funding available to start the project helped get many of the participants to the table. The value of participating in a National Estuary Program project is not always readily apparent. Many of the proposed partners were small non-governmental organizations with limited financial and organizational capacities.
  • The Importance of Information: An environmental crisis in the form of a highly visible fish kill in 2003 motivated citizens, stakeholders and politicians to focus on the bay. Having data on hand was crucial in defining the problem correctly. The program used its dissolved oxygen survey data to show the cause of the fish kill was driven by excess nutrients in the bay. The data allowed the program to capitalize on the political will to take action and resulted in the passage of legislation requiring wastewater nutrient reductions, one of the most significant steps to protect the bay.



The Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program has encountered the following challenges to realizing its conservation goals:

  • Overlapping Management Plans: A recent state of Rhode Island Systems Level Plan (SLP) has significant overlap with the Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program Comprehensive Management Plan that had been the guiding document for the state environmental agencies. However, the Rhode Island Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Coordination Team did not incorporate the NEP in the development of the SLP, resulting in two statutory mandates to coordinate actions of state agencies, but without the legal framework for integration of the two plans. It is unclear whether the Narragansett Bay program was intentionally left out of the development of the SLP, or if Rhode Island did not know how to blend the federal and state mandates. The result is a set of plans that can conflict with each other.
  • Challenges with the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan: The original CCMP was prescriptive and unwieldy. It was not revised regularly. As a result, most state agencies abandoned the CCMP immediately.
  • Inadequate Funding for Implementation of the CCMP: Current base funding levels primarily cover operational expenses, with little money left to facilitate Implementation of the CCMP.
  • Institutional Constraints: Rhode Island state employment constraints and the tri-partite institutional structure required to funnel funds to support NBEP staff makes it difficult to for the program to define itself as a coherent entity. Not all NBEP staff work in the same offices or building. Additionally, funds are difficult to funnel across state lines to Massachusetts, which contains the bulk of the watershed. 


Lessons Learned

The experience of the Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program offers lessons for other projects, including:

  • Importance of Buy-in: The process of developing the Narragansett Bay Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan was flawed, leading to inadequate buy-in to the document and abandonment by most state environmental agencies.
  • Importance of Creating an Implementation Structure: The National Estuary Program initially intended to fund the development of CCMPs and then let states implement the plans. This did not leave any coherent body in place to guide and advocate for the implementation of the plan, leading to lost opportunities.


Website Links

Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program: