Runoff Still Threatens Water On Aquidneck Island

Jul 22, 2015

Earlier this spring, we brought you a report from our series Battle With The Sea about the impact of climate change on Aquidneck Island's drinking water with warmer temperatures, heavier rains, and more intense storms. But there’s more to the story. We pick up where we left off.

Summer in full swing means swimming and sunbathing at the beach and outdoor dining.      

Until it rains. 

All that rain is a mixed bag. It’s good for farms and gardens, and for replenishing drinking water. The downfall?  It runs over streets and parking lots, picking up trash and chemicals as it heads to storm drains and rivers and eventually Narragansett Bay.

What's happening in Newport is a good example. 

The nine reservoirs that make up Newport County’s water supply system are polluted with too much phosphorus washed off from lawns and farms. Phosphorus is a nutrient found in fertilizer. And it’s feeding microscopic algae that trouble the reservoirs. 

“In essence there is a need to go on a nutrient – on a phosphorus diet," said Elizabeth Scott, deputy chief of the Department of Environmental Management's Office of Water Resources

The phosphorus and the algae it feeds put cities and towns in a tough spot. To deliver safe drinking water, they have to treat the water with chlorine. But that chlorine creates a harmful byproduct when it comes in contact with the algae blooming in the water.

Scott said that’s why the Newport Water Division invested in two advanced filtration systems to reduce the harmful byproduct and make sure water flowing from taps on Aquidneck Island is safe to drink. 

“Since these treatment plants have gone online, residents on Aquidneck Island are seeing improved quality of water coming from their taps," said Scott. "And certainly there is great anticipation that all Safe Drinking Water Act requirements will be met with these advanced treatment systems.” 

And it’s not just the Safe Drinking Water Act. It’s also the Clean Water Act. DEM is at work to improve water quality on Aquidneck Island, because currently the reservoirs don’t meet those criteria either.

Since the spring, DEM scientists have been out on canoes collecting data from all nine reservoirs. They want to evaluate the quality of the water as it enters the reservoirs and figure out how to clean it up.  

"We expect that with a concerted effort to really reduce the amount of nutrients discharged into these waters will have a positive impact on the quality of the reservoirs,” said Scott. That'll reduce the need (and the costs) for advanced treatment.

“The solution to the problem really lies up here," said Jim Chace, a biology professor at Salve Regina University and board member of the Aquidneck Island Land Trust. He said the real problem starts on land, far away from the reservoirs. With all of the development over the past century, there’s simply not enough green space to filter rain water before it enters waterways.

“So the most critical point to protect is right within 50 feet of the streams," said Chace, as he stood on a trail at Paradise Valley Park, owned by the town of Middletown and preserved by the Aquidneck Island Land Trust. The park is near the Maidford River, which flows into two of the island’s reservoirs and a beach. He said this protected property is an example of the type of project that could make a difference, because green space helps filter pollutants out of rain water before it reaches the drinking supply. 

Chace said people don’t often associate preserving land with protecting drinking water, but to him it’s critical, "because we will have failed miserably if a generation from now people can't get safe drinking water on this island. This is the critical moment right now to protect this land, because we're at a tipping point.” 

Chace believes this is a critical moment because the forces of climate change are only making problems worse. Warmer temperatures create a fertile climate for algae. And more intense rainfall means more runoff.

At Easton’s Pond, a manmade channel called a moat wraps around the south side of the reservoir, stopping runoff from getting in. Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access, explains what happens when even one inch of rain falls in this area.  

“Sixty two million gallons of water that comes from the watershed drains to this moat and then drains onto the beach," said McLaughlin. "So this is one of two main sources of bacteria that lead to beach closures." 

The moat protects the drinking water in the reservoir, but it has the opposite effect on the beach across the street. All that bacteria-laden runoff combined with stormwater from Middletown prompted the state to close the beach for 5 days (archived data spreadsheet). It’s an improvement over the 21 days it was closed during the summer in 2009 thanks to a UV disinfection plant installed in front of Easton Pond in 2011. The plant zaps bacteria from the moat’s runoff before it enters the beach.

Still the number of beach closures concerns Rep. Lauren Carson of Newport, who points out that Aquidneck Island relies on the beaches to draw tourists to Newport.

“And if the beaches are closed, this will really have a major impact on our businesses, on jobs in the city, small businesses, tourism-related recreational use businesses, and I’m very concerned about that," said Carson. "So it's not only the environmental issues, which are critical to our health and long-term stability, but it's also a loss of revenue to the city.”

Newport and other cities and towns across the state have made expensive improvements to better manage storm and waste water. Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy and policy at Save the Bay, said Newport is still working on a multimillion dollar water quality project meant to prevent overflows from the pipes that carry raw sewage and stormwater during heavy rain. He said it’s a step toward fixing a serious problem.

"Untreated sewage is still being belched into Newport Harbor during big rainstorms and the city of Newport is now going to get down to the business of fixing that problem," said Hamblett. "It’s going to take a long time."

Water quality experts, researchers, and environmental advocates seem to agree that treatments for drinking water and runoff only address the symptoms of bigger pollution problems on land. Cities and towns across Rhode Island have reduced the number of beach closures in recent years, but it’s going to take more infrastructure projects and more green space to really fix the problem. And residents can help, too, said Dave McLaughlin. 

“Taking shorter showers, installing rain barrels and rain gardens, and thinking about community green infrastructure - there's things we can do on a very small level to reduce the amount of natural resources that we use," said McLaughlin.  "Every person can make a difference. It's not just money and policymakers. It's people making good decisions every day."

Making good decisions every day so that when it rains, whether it’s a little or a lot, that water is a gift for gardens and reservoirs instead of a significant threat to drinking water and beaches.

Do you  have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we’d like to hear from you: news@ripr.org.