Battle With The Sea: Across The State, Protecting Drinking Water Supplies (Part 2)

May 7, 2015

The Rhode Island Department of Health did a comprehensive analysis to figure out which drinking water sources are most vulnerable to climate change to help water suppliers plan for the future. Rhode Island Public Radio’s environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza sat down with the June Swallow, chief of the Office of Drinking Water Quality at the state health department. She oversees the project called SafeWater Rhode Island

AE: June Swallow, when we think about climate change, what are the biggest threats to this drinking water system?

JS: Sea level rise, hurricane storm surge, or just increased storm winds, drought, flood. So increased rainstorms or sea level rise, or increased storm surge, all of those result in different kinds of flooding. So if there is flooding, then you have inundation of infrastructure, or inundation of sources of water, either the sources can become contaminated with sea water or just storm water or the infrastructure can be destroyed. And so you need to consider, 'Okay, so I'm a local water supplier, what does that mean to me? Really? Do I have to worry about this tank? Do I have to worry about that pump station? 'Do I need to re-locate my infrastructure? Do I need another supply? What is the practical ramification of the climate change issue?’

AE: Where in our state are we most vulnerable?

JS: We identified several water systems that were at risk for three hazards. We modeled for five hazards. There was drought, sea level rise, coastal flooding, riverine flooding, and hurricane storm surge. At severe risk of three of these hazards were—I don't think there will be any surprises here—Bristol, Jamestown, Newport, North Kingstown, Providence, South Kingstown, Stone Bridge United Water. The one that was at risk for four hazards was Warwick.

AE: What about our groundwater supplies in our aquifers, are those vulnerable? What are we doing about that or do we not know yet?

JS: Our groundwater supplies could be influenced by—if we have extended periods of drought—the quantity of groundwater (could become limited). And then there is also the possibility of saltwater intrusion into the groundwater supplies. We didn't model saltwater intrusion. But that is certainly something to be watched.

AE: And what are some of the strategies that you've identified to help them prepare for these impacts?

JS: Conservation and energy efficiency are two strategies that are important. Integrative planning is important, working together with other municipal services, thinking it through together about where is infrastructure going to be extended, how are we going to change infrastructure, are we going to move a pump station? You know, when an opportunity arises, you know for example, a road is being re-worked, maybe that's an opportunity for integrative planning and you think about, what else should we change at this point? ... Also whenever they're building something new or retrofitting something, because water infrastructure does last a long time. But whenever those opportunities arise, to think about climate change at that point as well, and what should change. For example, the new water treatment plant for Newport that's on top of the hill. It’s no longer down at the bottom.

AE: Now that you've reached out to these public water suppliers, are they receptive to what you're presenting to them?

JS: Yes, that was one of the big successes of this modeling effort, was that we did move the water supplies from being a little hesitant about the whole issue to really onboard with the climate change issue, with the potential hazards and with moving forward.

AE: June Swallow, chief of the office of drinking water quality at the Rhode Island Department of Health, thank you for being with us today.

JS: You’re welcome very much.

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