It’s been a decade since a big fish kill in Greenwich Bay grabbed headlines. It prompted the state to take more action for a healthier upper Narragansett Bay. Local wastewater treatment plants responded and it turns out, the state is on track to meet the goal of cutting back how much nitrogen we put into Narragansett Bay. That’s great news for one quahog fisherman who’s made a livelihood from the bay for decades.
There’s no better season to go quahogging than the winter season for Warwick resident Jody King, even though he makes half as much money as he does in the summer.
“I love the wind, the windier the day, the better I am,” said King on an overcast, chilly, and windy morning before throwing out an anchor into the water.
King said the wind helps him move his boat in order to dig a one-mile trench at the bottom of the bay and collect as many clams as he can. He connected several aluminum pipes 44 feet in length, with a large handle on one end and a rake with a metal basket on the other end. He pulled the handle back and forth to dig for clams through the bottom of the bay.
Born and raised in Warwick, King considers Greenwich Bay not only his backyard, but his dining room table.
“I eat what I catch and I eat it on a regular, weekly basis,” said King. “I come out here [fishing] and I go home every night. I live right by the water. I see what happens in my bay on a daily basis.”
King said the bay has gotten healthier since he first started fishing.
“It was 20 years ago that I used to watch, excuse what I say, poop and condoms float through the bay routinely after a heavy rain event,” said King. “And the bay would turn brown after real heavy rain event, partly because of all the mud and stuff, but partly because of the poop that used to come in.”
That’s no longer the case. Overflows of untreated wastewater and street runoff used to drain directly into the upper bay after a heavy storm. Now all of that gets funneled into underground tanks and tunnels, designed for storing untreated sewage. And more homes with septic systems and cesspools are now connected to city sewer systems.
“We are still trying to extend sewer service and wastewater treatment services to the far ends of the city [in Warwick] and that will help significantly with water quality,” said Janine Burke, executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority.
Over the past 30 years, voters have overwhelmingly approved millions of dollars in environmental bonds, especially those that deal with clean water. And this has helped local wastewater treatment plants pay for the upgrades to clean the bay.
Jody King is pleased with these changes.
“They [the wastewater treatment plants] have done a great job,” said King. “They keep my job very productive. They keep the bay open. And they not only keep the bay open, but they keep the bay pristine. And that’s what Rhode Island is known for, it’s pristine waters.”
King vividly remembers a moment on the bay 10 summers ago when the water at Greenwich Bay wasn’t so pristine.
“My dad and I probably came out at probably 5 o’clock in the morning,” recalled King. “You could see the water wasn’t clear. You could see like a milky gray color on the water and you could smell a stench that was unimaginable.”
King remembers standing ankle deep in dead fish. It was a fish kill unlike anything he had ever seen before.
“A number of bad circumstances came together at once and led to a large fish kill in Greenwich Bay,” said the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Angelo Liberti. Liberti said the bay has had problems with low oxygen levels since the 1980s. The fish died because there wasn’t enough oxygen in the water.
“That [scale of the fish kill] really seemed to get a lot more people’s attention that there was an oxygen problem that needs to be worked on,” said Liberti.
Fish suffocated when hot temperatures, low wind, and too many nutrients in the water, specifically nitrogen, all contributed to low oxygen levels.
Most of the nitrogen that makes its way into Narragansett Bay comes from wastewater treatment plants. The treated wastewater drained into the bay doesn’t have human waste in it, but it does have leftover nutrients. And it’s those nutrients that contributed to the massive fish kill a decade ago.
“Wastewater treatment plants were considered a major cause of that [fish kill],” said Carmine Goneconte, operations manager at Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility. “And because we are by far the largest wastewater treatment facility in Rhode Island, the focus was on us.”
The fish kill prompted state leaders to issue a law that requires more ambitious goals for cutting the amount of nitrogen we put into the bay by 50 percent. The state is remarkably close to meeting that nitrogen reduction goal. Liberti estimates Rhode Island has about 45 percent less nitrogen discharges into the bay.
“I would like to have two or three years [of data collected] to make sure that it [the nitrogen] has really stayed below 50 percent,” said Liberti.
For nonprofit leaders working to improve the health of the bay, nearly meeting this goal is still a major accomplishment. Save the Bay’s executive director Jonathan Stone said this was a very ambitious goal to set.
“It’s one of the few examples around the United States where wastewater treatment plant upgrades have been made and have had that level of effect on the reduction in nitrogen,” said Stone.
The Rhode Island DEM identified 11 wastewater treatment facilities that needed to cut how much nitrogen they were discharging into the bay. The DEM’s Liberti said eight out of those 11 wastewater treatment plants will meet their goal this year. The DEM granted the remaining plants an extension for meeting that goal.
Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility, the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant in Providence, was ahead of schedule for meeting that nitrogen reduction goal.
“Because we are the largest, we have the largest impact, both positively and negatively, unfortunately,” said Goneconte. “Before it was negatively, and now it’s more positive, and we’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
Back on the waters of Narragansett Bay on a recent winter morning, Jody King stood on his boat, which he lovingly calls Black Gold. From there, he harvested his last basket of clams for that day. It’s in these waters that King sees the difference that the state’s efforts have made.
“I can see it in the amount of clams that I catch on daily basis,” said King. “I can see it in the quality of the water that I get to see, feel, and touch, and occasionally taste every day. And I can tell you that this bay is getting much, much cleaner, due to all of the things that are happening, all the agencies [and nonprofits] working together.”
And then King got philosophical, saying Narragansett Bay will get clean when everybody wants it clean.