Adventures at the Rainwater Pool

Adventures at the Rainwater Pool    Greg Gerritt  May 8 2018
It is a long story, and far from over, but this seems like a good time to catch my breath and tell the tale. Or at least it seemed that way when I started writing. Now I realize I am not going to catch my breath as I went back into the rainwater pool to continue work and the toads assembled for breeding season. Maybe I will catch my breath in August when the toadlets have hopped away, but for now I try to write and observe the pool and its life.
The story is a tale of near daily walks in Providence’s North Burial Ground and taking video of the wild things and the sky. It is a tale of ideas, of how we manage stormwater, how we think about urban biodiversity, the fate of amphibians in the 21st Century, and the climate crisis we are plunging into. I have been writing about life in the NBG since I started spending time there, and have made about 500 videos in the last 5 years. I provide links to earlier writings and illustrative videos so I am going to leave out the details of tadpole existence and tales of fledgling hawks, painted turtles, and ranid cannibals, and send you to the pixels on Moshassuckcritters and the writings on for as much or as little background as you need for the tale at this point.
Adventures at the Rainwater Pool. Greg Gerritt May 2018
About 10 years ago, I and some neighbors convinced the City of Providence that it should unlock the walk-in gates to the North Burial Ground and invite the neighbors in. So i started walking more often in the Burial Ground. In 2011 I came across a small wetland (I thought it was a pond) that had huge numbers of small black tadpoles. I visited several times in the next couple of weeks and realized they were so photogenic that someone should make videos of them. Then they were gone.
I continued to visit each spring and after 2 years realized that the person to take the video was probably going to be me, since no one else was so inclined. So Friends of the Moshassuck asked for money for a video camera in our annual Rivers Council application and then bought a $200 video camera. I had never owned any sort of camera so learning how to use it was an interesting experience. In fact it took about 3 years before I was comfortable with the camera (my hand is still not steady) and the movie editing software on my computer, but from day one I decided to learn about video in public and started sharing on Youtube crudely made videos (1,2) of the little pond/rainwater pool, the tadpoles, and whatever else in the North Burial Ground caught my eye. I call the project and channel Moshassuckcritters as the Moshassuck River, that runs through the Burial Ground, is what got me started on all of this.
My original video goal was to create a time lapse sequence of tadpoles turning into little frogs. So much for what I knew, turns out the tadpoles were toad tadpoles, not frogs, which I did not figure out until I put out a video in 2014 (after I realized I was going to have to go at night to hear the mating calls of the frogs, and was informed by an expert that I had all of my identifications wrong (3). There were two kinds of amphibians, Fowler’s Toads and Gray Tree Frogs calling. I eventually learned to distinguish the two as well as learning the bullfrog calls that I heard at the pond a few hundred yards away in the cemetery. I never did put together a real time lapse video, you need a much better set up than I had and I came to understand why time lapse would never work in the wild where the animals move around while the camera has to be in exactly the same place for each frame, but I did produce long and short versions on the development of Fowler’s Toad tadpoles that worked as well if not quite as smoothly. (4,5) In 2015 I produced a video “How a Tadpole Eats” (6) Again I misidentify things, in this case body parts, but it shows very clearly the way a tadpole eats including the way the tongue wipes off the scrapers around the mouth, and with the crystal clear pictures of the mouth parts, it is maybe technically the best video sequence I ever filmed.
I kept at it and a couple of years later, about the time I sort of had the rhythm of the Fowler’s Toads that used the rainwater pool, the RI Green Infrastructure Coalition was created to think about and create new ways to manage stormwater in face of the bigger storms climate change was bringing and the need for ever cleaner water if our society is to successfully adapt to and mitigate both the Carbon Dioxide emissions and the higher temperatures that are driving massive changes in the ecosystems around us. (7)
7 Rainwater infrastructure and amphibians
My first project upon moving to RI in 1996 was as a stakeholder representing the Green Party of Rhode Island in the process that lead to the building of the Combined Sewage Overflow tunnels under downtown Providence and other stormwater infrastructure. At the stakeholder process my goal was to make sure that the idea of using community friendly ways to manage water that would provide direct benefits to communities such as green space, and clean the water reaching the local stream was included in the conversation and the plan. In 1997 we did not even have a term for what we wanted, and the Narragansett Bay Commission and much of the RI environmental community just wanted to build the tunnel and get it over with (Tunnel works GREAT) but a few of us insisted that the NBC formally recognize that what is now called Green Stormwater Infrastructure would be the guiding principle for future work,and in the final plan, they did. As I was writing this I had a conversation with an old friend who told me that the first time she met me was at a meeting on CSOs at the Environment Council of Rhode Island, and she thought I was nuts to advocate for what is now called Green Infrastructure. Gale Gennaro now leads green stormwater projects at Providence College and marveled at how what I talked about 20 years ago is so mainstream today. 
So when the Green Infrastructure Coalition began, it was obvious that Friends of the Moshassuck ( the organizational home of Moshassuckcritters) would have to be an active member, and that the rainwater pool in the North Burial Ground was going to be a source of inspiration and research/testing for efforts to use stormwater to create habitat. I continue to ponder how using stormwater to create amphibian breeding habitat might fit in to the development of Green Infrastructure, or Nature Based Solutions for Stormwater, in other locations in Rhode Island, especially cemeteries, and how biodiversity plays a critical role in fostering human communities. Water equals life after all, but mostly I watch and work in the Burial Ground, grounding the flights of fancy.
I started reading about what was going on elsewhere, and talked to local experts about the creation or modification of stormwater systems so that instead of infiltrating the water ASAP, in some select places maybe we could filter the water so it is clean enough and then hold onto the water,and provide amphibian breeding habitat. I learned about what hard lives amphibians have. A body of water that has water for a specific length of time at the right time of year, but go dry frequently enough to keep out fish and bullfrogs. (I dreamed of hydroperiods) And there must be sufficient upland habitat around it to maintain a population size that is viable and resilient in drought years. But I have learned that creating and restoring breeding habitat can be effective in the right circumstances.
I have now filmed the rainwater pool and other parts of the North Burial Ground approximately 200 times a year, day and night at all seasons, for four years. It is 5 years if you count the year I did not film at night because I did not realize what I would miss. I rarely film in the rain or hard snow because the camera does not really like to get wet, nor late at night as I have to sleep sometime. I also walk in the burial ground without a camera nearly as often as I bring the camera so I get to see it from two different perspectives (eye and video camera) regularly. Every year I think of new things to study and new things to film, so I have an expanding array of pictures of specific sites, features, and conditions that can be used to examine changes over time. (8) The most obvious example of the expanding array of features in my films is when I started paying attention to the spread of the cattails in 2016 and 2017, set up regular locations to take video from so that comparisons could be made, (9) and came to understand how rapidly the pond was transforming and how soon it would no longer be toad breeding habitat if current trends continued. In a 60 ft by 100 ft pool the cattail advance in the last two years was more than 15 feet, leaving only 30 feet between the expansion of the cattails and the western shore. (10)
8 Videos intimately exploring the rainwater pool have been produced for each month since January 2016, in a burst between December and February I offer links here to January 2016 and 2017 and further links where they relate to the content of specific paragraphs but all 24 parts of the series are on Moshassuckcritters as well as some rainwater pool special events videos and many that are specifically exploring tadpole ecology and development.
Another example: In the last year I have started to pay more attention to the entrance chute for the water in the northeast corner of the rainwater pool. The water running down the roads enters the basin, spreads out and deposits much of its sediment load before circulating into the lower parts of the basin, The silt is building up just below the chute. ( 11) Leaving more leaves along the edge of the wetland slows down the water, so more silt is deposited at the entrance and less in the center of the pool. Even so the pool has gotten shallower each year, from an estimated 18 inches deep when i first started paying attention, to less than 10 inches deep compared to the western mow line in the center of the pool today (Or at least until I dug out some of the cattails in April 2018). What was also happening was the cattail expansion was building up a peat like root mass so fast that where the root mass had spread, it was further reducing the amount of open water, and raising the surface enough so that water draining into the soil was below ground level ever faster. The spin side to this is the eastern side is rising ever higher with the silt accumulations, that it is now high enough that cattails are being replaced by dry land vegetation further and further west each year. (12)
It turns out the rainwater pool is a feral pond. It once contained a fountain and had a bridge across it, but eventually it was filled in, leaving a barren depression filled with gravel and pieces of asphalt; filling with the rains, going dry in the sun. As I started to correlate pool levels with rainfall, documented throughout 2016 and 2017 after anecdotal evidence needed verification, I came to realize that the pool was as accurate as a rain gauge, and 1.7 inches of rain filled it to the mow line, with lesser or greater amounts of rain predictably filing the basin to the same height each time we got the same rainfall. If the pool is dry and receives the water from 1,7 inches of rain, if there is no additional rain it will be dry in about 2 weeks, which means it needs about .85” of rain a week to stay full., which is very close to the weekly average of rain in Rhode island, though it is never regularly distributed through any particular year.
Many amphibians breed in temporary ponds. It is a risky strategy in that there is a greater or lesser chance that the breeding pool will go dry before the tadpoles are ready to breathe air, but it can be a high reward strategy as many of these pools lack predators, and most amphibians are very susceptible to predation at the tadpole stage. The absence of predators means that nearly every egg that hatches has a chance to become a toad. Some amphibians in New England breed in what are called vernal pools, pools filled with snowmelt in the high water tables of spring that go dry in the summer. They often breed in huge swarms on one or a very few rainy nights as soon as it was up enough to melt the snow. Fowler’s Toads and Gray Tree frogs also need predator (fish and bullfrog) free pools, which means the pools have to go dry nearly every year, but they also need the pools to be full of water in the warmer weather as they do not breed until it is about 60 degrees Fahrenheit at night, somewhere in early May most years in Providence. The toads seem to have evolved a pretty resilient system. The last two years the early breeders have lain eggs and hatched tadpoles that died when the pool went completely dry. But in each case the pool refilled with the rains, the toads returned to breed and the 2nd crop successfully produced toadlets that hopped away and dispersed through the cemetery before the pool went dry again. Toads have evolved in a system in which occasional crop failure has little long term effect. They probably can handle three crop failures in 10 years, but three in a row would definitely put an isolated population at risk of extinction. (13,14,15)
13 Rainwater Pool series May 2016
In 2015 I began to ponder if deepening the rainwater pool would make it more likely to hold water for a complete toad breeding cycle while still allowing it to go dry often enough to keep out the bullfrogs and fish. In 2015 and 2016 Bullfrogs from the neighboring pond dispersed to the rainwater pool during the summer, though in both cases after most of the toadlets had dispersed. In each case the bullfrogs disappeared when the pond went dry several weeks later, so they were not in the pool when toad mating began the next spring.
Early in 2016 I convened some Rhode Island experts on toads, stormwater, and related topics for a day at Providence College to ponder how we might use the new interest in Nature Based Solutions for stormwater to benefit amphibians. We all agreed that it was possible and that there were probably a few places in RI in which doing so might be useful. We also discussed some of the obstacles we might find in the wetland and stormwater regulations. I continued to study the rainwater pool with eyes open wider each day as the evidence of transformation and the need for restoration became more apparent.
In 2017 I decided it was time to act. The first thing to do was secure buy in from the City of Providence Parks Department, since the North Burial Ground is a city owned and managed cemetery. The City agreed to partner with me, and have been excellent partners in all of the expanding community work in the North Burial Ground. At the suggestion of a Green Infrastructure Coalition colleague who worked for RIDEM, I asked for a meeting with the DEM Wetland Restoration Team. I was not quite sure what to expect from the Wetland Restoration Team, but I approached the project this way:
The Parks Department and I were both of the mind that the restoration i proposed could be considered routine maintenance, that a rainwater system that was silting in and had excessive vegetation needs regular maintenance. We strongly suggested this to the Wetland Restoration Team. I also prepared a series of pictures and some fairly detailed explanations of the changes I observed in the pool and what I thought that meant. The WRT seemed a bit at sea. They could not quite remove their regulator hats when faced with something out of the ordinary. Here is what I prepared for the WRT (16)
This encounter and the subsequent trip through permitting was among the least pleasant parts of the trip. The WRT did not seem to want to classify the restoration of the Rainwater Pool as routine maintenance despite the evidence I presented, the City’s statement that they considered it long overdue maintenance, and 40 year old city report that noted the need for just this type of maintenance in the 1970s. The WRT, instead of agreeing it was maintenance, answering my questions, or making suggestions to improve the project said go get a permit.
Knowing I had never applied for a permit I went around looking for professional help. None of the engineering firms I had discussions with could really grok the project. They had never intentionally dug out a wetland to make it deeper so that it would hold water longer. They were used to filling them in or infiltrating water as fast as possible into the ground. My conversations went nowhere, so I decided I would just do it myself. I got plat maps from the city and used them at the size they were handed to me, and blew them up so that the rainwater pool covered the whole page and I could show details that were invisible in such a small wetland at the scales the permit required. I wrote up a 10 page explanation of pretty much everything I knew about Fowler’s Toads, the wetland, and what i proposed to do. I provided about 25 full page pictures of toads in lust and the wetland as screen shots from videos. I drew up vegetation maps, depth maps, and exactly what modifications were proposed. I handed it in.
The response was the bureaucratic minutia of the state of RI required the maps to have some kind of GPS locator on them and that you could not hand draw maps on blown up maps or hand in originals, or or or, I wrote my response but my partners asked me not to send it to DEM as it was a bit explicit about the insanity of the process. I refrained from sending it, but did send a note asking for the regulator on the case to recuse himself since he had long been skeptical of the project. I do not think DEM has enough wetlands staff so no recusal occurred. (17)
17 Rainwater Pool series July 2017
Based on this experience, and other similar stories, my duties in the Green Infrastructure Coalition now include the project of making wetland and stormwater regulations more amphibian friendly and trying to transform the process by which people apply for permission to restore ecosystems. My analysis began with the understanding that the current rules are written in response to a process in which real estate development is a dominant political player in the shaping of the rules. The rules are structured based on how the industry works, even if they are more stringent and protective of water and wetlands than the industry would like. But it is that rigor and rigidness necessary in dealing with the industry that makes it very difficult for small non profits to be able to afford restorations. I have followed up with RIDEM about beginning the glacially slow process of changing the rules and categories, maybe in a way similar to the changes in the compost regulations for small scale sites and hope that dialogue progresses in the near future. Maybe restorations need to be less of an adversarial/regulatory process and more of a knowledge sharing process. (18)
Time was a wasting during a dry spell when it would have been relatively easy to muck out the center of the pool, but the permit was held hostage by bureaucratic inertia and the inability of the engineers in RI to think creatively about restorations, but eventually a Green Infrastructure colleague gave FOTM a very discounted price and redid my maps in the acceptable format. (19) In the mean time I continued to gather data and observe, so a bit of new information was included in the updated application, but nothing that really made a difference.(20) 8 months after starting to try to figure out how to get a permit, I received one in November 2017. Now all I needed was a dry spell. The closest we got was right at the end of March 2018, It was dry when I started digging, but an inch or two down you still hit the water table, and eventually most of the 3 days of digging was in the watery muck. (21, 22, 23)
19   Rainwater Pool Series September 2017  includes the plans.
20 The permit has been received
21 Rainwater Pool Restoration Day 1
The digging is now done and some of it redone. The work was done as quickly as possible and was finished in a snow storm followed by rains that would have made it nearly impossible to continue the excavating. At DEM’s insistence I did go back in to the pool just before toad breeding season started and removed the liner. (24) I do question the wisdom of DEM on that one, and it provides a good example of how communications on restorations needs to be improved. And it is obvious that over time routine maintenance will be needed so it will never really be done. The rainwater pool is deeper, and it appears as if the pool will hold water longer. Monitoring and filming will continue, hopefully for at least 2 more years to see how well the restoration worked under a variety of circumstances and weather. Right after the touch up work was finished the evening temperatures were 60 degrees and toad mating immediately commenced. I am happy to be watching another toad breeding cycle following the toads, learning ever more about their lives and their interactions with the ecosystem of the North Burial Ground, and whether or not this protect actually enhanced amphibian breeding habitat in this location. (25, 26)
I have only seen the eggs once, in a drought year, and only that time seen the newborns, but by day 2 or 3 after hatching the tadpoles will be swimming in the rainwater pool and the race will be on.
I also have hopes that with the longer hydroperiod of the pool that the Gray Tree frogs will be able to complete their slightly longer breeding cycle. I have only heard a few treefrogs the last few nights, but maybe it is enough. (27)
You are up to date, have heard the basics of the story from beginning to end. Thanks for reading.
Greg Gerritt May 8 2018