Scott MacKay Commentary
8:33 am
Mon June 10, 2013

The Murky Future of Rhode Island's Water Supply

If there is one government service most Rhode Islanders take for granted, it’s the drinking water that flows from our faucets. RIPR political analyst  Scott MacKay says that may not be the case in the future.

Aerial view of the Scituate reservoir, which provides water to about 60 percent of Rhode Island.
Credit thisisbossi / Flickr

One of Rhode Island’s grand assets is the millions of gallons of water that flows every day from the Scituate Reservoir to the sinks, bubblers and bathtubs that serve 60 percent of our state. In a state with a serious inferiority complex about so much, our water is the boast of a small state.

We have some of the nation’s most plentiful, cheap and clean water. Yet, as is the case with other precious resources, Rhode Island needs to move now to protect what we have and prepare for the future.

The Providence Water Supply Board controls the reservoir and the treatment and piping systems that deliver pure water from communities in the East Bay to the Pawtuxet River watershed. Begun in 1915, the reservoir by the mid-1920s flooded a natural bowl at the headwaters of the North Branch of the Pawtuxet, creating the largest freshwater water body in the Ocean State.

It was the wellspring of clean water for the capital city’s burgeoning population and the linchpin for the development of the industrial powerhouse that was Rhode Island in the years between the turn of the 20th Century and World War II.

The system has worked well for nearly a century. Now comes a reckoning. The Scituate Reservoir and its surrounding forest and watershed has been well protected and maintained. But the miles of underground pipes that feed the system have not.  The rotting and sediment-clogged pipes need to be replaced to plug leaks and guarantee a free flow of pure water in the future.

Rhode Island’s water infrastructure problems are hardly unique. The federal Environmental Protection Agency in a survey released last week has determined that almost $400 billion in improvements are needed between now and 2030 nationwide to preserve safe drinking water for almost 300 million Americans.

Providence built and has long maintained the reservoir, but city government gets nothing from this asset. Because of political controversy that harks to the 1980 governor election between then-Mayor Buddy Cianci and then-Gov. Joseph Garrahy, the city is barred from using the water system as a revenue source.

Now that the system needs major upgrades, the Providence Water Supply Board has scant choice but to ask for fairly steep water rate increases to pay for fixing or replacing miles of pipes, much of which lies under city streets. The cost of this upgrade may be as much as $500 million.

The water supply board has asked state utility regulators for permission to raise residential rates by 24 percent and the wholesale rates it charges other systems  for Scituate water, including the Bristol County Water Authority and the Kent County Water Authority, by 32 percent. The new money would be used largely for the pipe work.

There is probably a better way to handle all this. Under legislation pending in the General Assembly, the state’s larger water systems that draw from Scituate would be merged into one large utility that would be called the Ocean State Regional Water Authority. There is wise precedent for such an entity.

Until the Narragansett Bay Water Quality Commission was founded in 1980, the communities along the upper Narragansett Bay treated the bay as an open sewer. The Fields Point treatment in Providence and the Bucklin Point plan in East Providence poured 65 million gallons of poorly treated wastewater into the bay every day, polluting our state’s premier asset and killing the shellfishing industry.

Since the bay commission took over, Narragansett Bay has gotten noticeably cleaner, shell and sport fishing has come back and there is even a nascent oyster fishery.

A merger of water providers would also consolidate many of the more than 100 water systems that serve our state. Our speck of a state is overrun with government and quasi-government agencies – more than 150 pension systems, more than 70 fire departments and water systems so tiny that some serve just a few hundred customers. If you think this plethora of public agencies, some that date to colonial times, is serving Rhode Island well in the 21st century, we bring you the bankrupt Coventry fire district.

A new consolidated water authority would also have the virtue of shifting the current water supply board employees from Providence’s stressed employee pension system to a new pension program that would be solvent and financed from water customers.

There has been one hearing on the rate increase so far. But no one from the public showed up last Wednesday. There is another hearing June 18th at the Providence Public Safety Complex. It’s time for citizens and their representatives to take notice instead of taking the clean water from the faucets for granted. Nothing is forever if it isn’t maintained.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:35 and 8:35 on Morning Edition and again at 5:45 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting at the “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org.