Rhode Island Salt Pond Special Area Management Plan – Case Study

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To complement general statewide coastal management plans, the State of Rhode Island on the northeast coast of the US also develops Special Area Management Plans (SAMPs) for coastal areas of the state, including the Salt Ponds region. The goal is to enable multiple organizations to coordinate their actions at the scale of coastal ecosystems to restore and protect ecosystem qualities, and balance uses within the SAMP boundaries. The Salt Pond SAMP operates as a partnership between state and local governments to manage growth, mitigate the cumulative and secondary impacts of development, and improve environmental conditions in a series of lagoons (salt ponds) and their watershed. This case study offers lessons on the value of understanding the ecology of governance, weaving science into the decision-making process, and institutionalizing watershed management in collaborating institutions [1].


Geography The Salt Ponds region in the state of Rhode Island forms the southwestern boundary fronting the Atlantic Ocean. The region is shaped by a string of nine brackish coastal lagoons, separated from the ocean by a low narrow strip of barrier spits. The watershed encompasses approximately 82 km and lies within four municipalities. The ponds are shallow, poorly flushed, and the freshwater input is primarily from groundwater and surface runoff. This makes them valuable as fish and shellfish nurseries but also susceptible to eutrophication and bacterial loading. Historically, the ecology of the ponds has been altered by the stabilization of inlets, dredging of channels, the installation of individual house sewage systems, and alterations of the quality and quantity of freshwater inflow resulting from development activities. The low, narrow barrier beaches also make the region particularly susceptible to coastal erosion and storm damage during winter storms and summer hurricanes [1].

Links to Statewide Coastal Program Rhode Island was accepted into the US Coastal Zone Management Program in 1978. The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (RICRMC) is the state body responsible for implementing this comprehensive state-wide regulatory program. The program includes policies that zone the state’s shorelines and coastal waters according to six use categories that encourage or restrict different activities. The state’s shoreline buffers and setbacks are linked to the water use categories. RICRMC has developed SAMPs to address cumulative and secondary impacts, and the specific combination of problems in an area.

Special Area Management Plans (SAMPS) The US Coastal Zone Management Act provides states with financial and other incentives to develop SAMPs. The Federal Act defines a SAMP as: “A comprehensive plan providing for natural resource protection and reasonable coastal-dependent economic growth containing a detailed and comprehensive statement of policies; standards and criteria to guide public and private uses of lands and waters; and mechanisms for timely implementation in specific geographic areas within the coastal zone” [2]. SAMPs enable management goals to be addressed within a specific geographic area. They address the shortcomings of traditional sectoral planning by establishing boundaries based on the issues and coastal ecosystem rather than on administrative boundaries.

Figure 1: Coverage of Seven SAMPs in the State of Rhode Island


The Salt Ponds region underwent significant suburbanization after the 1950s resulting in changes to population, development, culture, and uses of the coastal area. This resulted in a number of environmental issues of great concern to the public in the late 1970s. These included [1]:

  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitats
  • Declining fish and shellfish stocks
  • Increased shellfish closures due to bacterial contamination
  • Excessive nitrogen loadings and pathogens from septic systems
  • Increased sedimentation and nutrient loading to the ponds
  • Sedimentation problems and changes in salinity regimes caused by beachways being stabilized
  • Increased vulnerability to storm damage from hurricanes and winter storms
  • Conflicts among resource users.

In addition, there was a proposal to build a nuclear power plant in the region. There was also a general belief among the public that government was not responsive and that agency decision-making was cumbersome, contradictory, and time-consuming [1]. The public perceived state officials as indifferent to the region’s rapid growth. These multiple issues catalyzed public belief that additional management measures were needed to protect the Salt Ponds ecosystem. Many of these issues were discussed during public hearings in 1975 on the establishment of the Rhode Island coastal program. Upon approval into the national coastal program in 1978, RICRMC partnered with the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) Sea Grant Program to develop a SAMP for the Salt Ponds and their watershed.


The Coastal Resources Center (CRC) at URI worked with the RICRMC to design the state coastal program and it has continued to play a lead role in all SAMPs. From 1979 to 1984, federal funds received by the RICRMC, CRC, and the Sea Grant Program were combined to support an ambitious interdisciplinary research program similar to the larger research program. RICRMC and CRC brought together numerous local, state and federal officials as well as residents and environmental groups to identify the key issues, establish a decision-making structure, and build consensus on how to address the issues.


The Salt Pond SAMP focused on understanding the watershed’s ecology and building a strong constituency for approval and implementation of a comprehensive plan of action. Major activities included:

  • Preparation of an “ecological history” to characterize the place and issues
  • Collaborative scientific research on key issues
  • nutrients and bacterial contamination of ponds
  • sedimentation
  • fisheries declines
  • Public involvement—volunteers conducted a sustained water quality monitoring program
  • Municipal officials involvement
  • Assistance from advisory committee in drafting the plan
  • Extensive media coverage

An innovative ecological history was prepared to identify priority issues in the area as well as educate the public in a compelling manner. The document, The Elusive Compromise: Rhode Island’s Coastal Ponds and Their People, became a best local seller that captured the history, culture and modern day issues of the area.

Part of the strategy was to avoid producing a general and voluminous “ecological characterization.” Instead the research focused on a select group of issues highlighting ecological processes related to water quality, sedimentation, and overfishing. This elevated the science to local decision making processes and agendas.

The planning process used a participatory framework that included informal meetings with officials and the public. This helped to develop trust and produced some of the implementation ideas incorporated in the final plan. The facilitators also conducted internal negotiations between the researchers and policy officials to ensure the science was understood and was directed towards management questions. A volunteer water quality monitoring organization, “Salt Pond Watchers”, was created to engage the public. Not only did this educate and energize the public, but the data continues to serve as an important source of water quality information on the Salt Ponds region.

An advisory committee composed of the public, local and state agencies carried out a formal negotiation process. The group developed detailed syntheses of the research findings to be included in the management plan and selected the management actions. This was important as the RICRMC does not have full authority over actions in the watershed.


The RICRMC formally adopted the SAMP in 1984. RICRMC implements the plan in partnership with the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the four local governments.

Local governments have revised their zoning policies and ordinances to make them consistent with the SAMP’s housing or building density requirements aimed at protecting habitat and reducing nitrogen loadings. The SAMP requirements were also incorporated into the RICRMC regulations and apply to all development adjacent to the shoreline and large development projects. The DEM changed its sewage regulations to implement the SAMP provisions related to sewage disposal systems.

Almost twenty-five years later, the Salt Pond SAMP remains a living document. Many of the activities have been implemented. While many ponds are significantly improved, some continue to suffer from water quality and fishing problems. Development has continued despite the limitations imposed by municipal zoning changes. Also, some partnerships, such as the centralized permitting system, have not succeeded as planned. Even so, the innovations and achievements of the Salt Pond SAMP continue to provide a functioning governance system for the region.

Evolution of the SAMP

Since its adoption, the SAMP has been revised several times to expand the boundary, add requirements for denitrifying septic systems to reduce nitrogen loading, require riparian buffer zones, and specify storm water management standards. The SAMP was substantially revised in 1999 to improve its strategy for addressing cumulative and secondary impacts of development.

Lessons The Salt Ponds SAMP provides a model for other watershed and community-based ecosystem planning processes. Some of the key lessons from this and other SAMP processes [1][3] include:

  • Active involvement of public in all stages of planning and implementation is critical to voluntary compliance with new rules and limitations
  • Ecological histories and the like are of enormous value in initial consensus about the problems and key issues
  • The SAMP’s community-based scale has strengthened local ownership of plans and bolstered effective implementation
  • Science must be ‘nested’ within the decision-making processes to ensure it is relevant to policy and educates the leaders
  • Implementation occurs incrementally and must be monitored
  • Periodic “reinvention” within implementing organizations and institutions is necessary.

This case provided evidence to support the claim that watershed plans need to be institutionalized. The Salt Ponds SAMP was incorporated into several other programs such as the federal coastal zone management program, local zoning ordinances, the state guide plan, and the DEM’s pollution and fisheries plans.

The success of SAMPs has led to other applications in other agencies and internationally. The US Army Corps of Engineers adapted the SAMP for use on coastal and inland waters. And CRC has applied the SAMP concept in a variety of settings internationally including in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Tanzania and several countries in Latin America [1].
  1. 1,0 1,1 1,2 1,3 1,4 1,5 Hennessey, Timothy and Mark T. Imperial, Rhode Island’s Salt Ponds: Using a Special Area Management Plan to Improve Watershed Governance, A technical report prepared to support a final report to the National Academy of Public Administration as part of their Learning from Innovations in Environmental Protection Project (Washington, DC: National Academy of Public Administration, July 2000).http://www.napawash.org/pc_economy_environment/samp.pdf
  2. Braxton C. Davis Regional planning in the US coastal zone: a comparative analysis of 15 special area plans Ocean & Coastal Management 47 (2004) 79–94
  3. NOAA Coastal Zone Management Program http://coastalmanagement.noaa.gov/issues/special_indepth.html