Battle With The Sea: Protecting Newport's Drinking Water (Part 1)

May 7, 2015

With more than 500 public drinking water suppliers in the state, the Rhode Island Department of Health is worried about how they will cope with climate-related changes like intense rains, rising seas, and warmer temperatures. For the next installment of our series, Battle With The Sea, environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza heads to Newport, home to one of the most vulnerable drinking water supplies in the state when it comes to climate change.

Easton Pond is one of nine reservoirs that supply drinking water to all of Newport County. The pond sits in a low-lying area, right across the street from a popular beach. Its entire southern side is protected from the ocean by a large grass-covered hill called a berm. 

Looking out from the berm today the waves look calm, but when a severe storm moves through, they can rise over the beach and across the road, coming dangerously close to the reservoir.

“During Sandy, the storm surge came within a foot of the top of that berm or so,” said Topher Hamblett, Save the Bay’s director of advocacy and policy, as he stood in front of the reservoir with a handful of environmental advocates, who say the pond could have been breached by Sandy’s five-foot storm surge.

“And it will breach some day,” said Hamblett. “A stronger storm will come and it will breach and this is a very important part of the water supply for Newport. It's at high risk, I would say.” 

Along with Hamblett, Clean Ocean Access Executive Director Dave McLaughlin remembers just how close disaster came during Sandy.  “A very large dumpster, the morning after the storm, was actually resting on the top of the moat, of the earthen dam, so it kind of gives you a sense to how close we were,” said McLaughlin.

McLaughlin said the ponds on Aquidneck Island are polluted with too much phosphorus and algae. The water has to be heavily treated to make it safe to drink. And now climate change is adding to the challenge: intense rains and warmer temperatures will make the algae problem worse. Rapidly rising seas and increased erosion also threaten the water supply.

In 2010, for example, the berm at Easton Pond started to collapse because of strong winds. McLaughlin said the city invested millions of dollars to fix and reinforce it. Still, he said they have to do more.

“The reality is if sea level is going to rise one or three or five feet in the next 100 years, what do we need to do about compensating for the fact that we might lose this component of the safe drinking yield for water?” he asked. “Where can we source this water somewhere else? If it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen, how do we plan for it now?”

Newport’s tide gauge has shown sea levels have risen about 10 inches since 1930. And they’re expected to rise another 3 to 5 feet by the end of the century.

The City of Newport’s director of utilities declined to talk about climate-related risks to drinking water and the city’s long term planning.

But environmental advocates say Aquidneck Island is vulnerable. Chuck Allott, executive director of the Aquidneck Island Land Trust notes that part of the challenge is the intense development around the drinking water supplies.

“There isn’t anywhere for this pond to migrate further inland,” said Allott. “It’s all private land ownership beyond the corners of the pond. So we’ve built all the way around our water systems and that’s part of the problem on Aquidneck Island.”

But it’s not just urban development. It’s also farming activities. 

Allott said the land trust is doing what it can to protect the remaining open spaces, particularly along the banks of rivers and streams. He said those natural areas help buffer the island against flooding, and they filter rainwater, cleaning it out before it ever gets to the public water supply.

Allott said poor water quality and climate change are converging on Aquidneck Island. Environmental advocates are working to stay ahead of the problem. They say it will be important to strengthen the island’s reservoirs and the land around them, to keep them safe from a future likely to include more intense rains and warmer temperatures. 

For reservoirs that face the ocean, like Easton Pond, there are just two options: reinforce them or move them away from a changing coastline. 

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