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The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. For fiscal year 2014, the total fund available for BEACH Act grants was $9.55 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there is also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. Rhode Island was eligible for a $205,000 grant in fiscal year 2014. The cost of the coastal monitoring program is fully funded by this federal grant.
Portions of the following discussion have been taken from NRDC's report Testing the Waters, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, June 2014. NRDC's report evaluates beach monitoring data relative to EPA's recommended Beach Action Value (BAV). The BAV is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. The EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions."
NRDC ranked Rhode Island 25th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 16% of samples exceeded EPA's new BAV standards for designated beach areas in 2013.
Rhode Island has more than 200 beach access points along about 400 miles of Atlantic Ocean and Narragansett Bay waters. The Rhode Island Department of Health is responsible for beach water monitoring and water quality notifications. The regular monitoring season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Beachgoers can learn about beach advisories and closures on the Rhode Island Department of Health's website.
Many urban areas across the U.S. have combined sewer systems, which carry both stormwater and sewage in the same pipes. During heavy storms, the combined flows can exceed the capacity of the sewer system and overflow into waterways. The Narragansett Bay Commission is currently in the middle of a two-phase, multiyear combined sewer overflow (CSO) abatement program that will create six miles of underground storage tunnels, five CSO interceptors, a wetland treatment system, and sewer separation in 12 areas. When the program is complete, overflow volume will be reduced by an expected 98% and water quality will dramatically improve.
The first phase of this multiyear project (the addition of a tunnel, associated station, and drop shafts) was completed in 2008. Between 2008 and 2012, these improvements resulted in the treatment of approximately 4.6 billion gallons of overflow and wastewater that would have polluted Narragansett Bay. Construction for the second phase (two interceptors, two sewer separation projects, and a wetlands facility) began in 2011 and is expected to be complete by the end of 2014.
In the summer of 2009, Easton's Beach in Newport County began using a seaweed harvester to remove excess seaweed from the beach in an effort to improve aesthetics and water quality. In 2012, approximately 64.35 tons of seaweed was removed. (Note that while piles of seaweed on the beach can contribute to poor water quality, they may play a role in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and their removal can have detrimental effects on local flora and fauna.)
Another undertaking to improve beachwater quality at Easton's Beach was the installation of an ultraviolet treatment system for destroying bacteria in stormwater discharges to the beach from Easton's Moat. The system, which began operating during the 2011 beach season, is activated when there is more than 0.25 inch of rain in a 24-hour period.
Beachwater quality has improved over time at Easton Beach. In 2008, despite low precipitation, 32% of samples taken at this beach exceeded water quality standards for fecal indicator bacteria. There was more rain in 2009 than in 2008, yet the percentage of samples exceeding standards dropped to 20%. In 2012, just 3% of samples exceeded water quality standards. However, in 2013 the percentage of samples jumped to 22% using EPA's more restrictive BAV standard.
Bristol Town Beach in Colt State Park implemented a number of changes to improve beachwater quality, including green infrastructure techniques that allow stormwater to filter into the ground instead of running off into the ocean. Six catch basins connected to bioswales have been installed to intercept runoff from the park before it reaches the beach. Rainwater is filtered mechanically in the catch basins, and then further filtered by vegetation in the bioswales. The bioswales also significantly slow down the flow of rainwater, preventing surges of stormwater that may carry bacteria and other contamination to the beach.
Also, the storm drain whose outfall is at the beach has been opened and restored so that when there is stormwater flow from urban areas upstream of the beach, it follows a slow and winding path. This helps clean the water carried to the ocean and allows time for some infiltration into the soil. The park's parking lot has been resurfaced with permeable pavers, and bioretention swales and specialized vegetation have been installed around the parking lot to absorb and filter any stormwater that does run off.
In addition, there are plans to upgrade the sewage treatment plant near this beach and install underground tanks that will store rainwater during heavy storms. With the modifications, rainwater will be stored and released slowly to the sewage treatment plant when rainfall is not heavy and will help prevent overflows of untreated or partially treated sewage during storms.
All of the beaches north of Conimicut Point in Warwick and Nayatt Point in Barrington have been unlicensed since 1999 because of ongoing water quality issues. Closures and advisories are never issued at these beaches because only licensed beaches are considered to be "open." However, the state specifically discourages swimming and other full-body water-contact activities north of Conimicut Point and urges people to refrain from any contact with water north of Conimicut Point for at least three days after heavy rainfall.
The Urban Beach Initiative was launched in 2010 in part to determine if there are areas in the upper Narragansett Bay that are safe for swimming. The initiative's sampling, surveys, and remediation efforts, undertaken in partnership with Save the Bay, continued into the 2012 beach season, and results of these efforts will be submitted to EPA in October 2013. The state hopes that testing will show that water quality has improved and can support swimming.
Watershed Counts is a collaborative initiative of 60 partners, facilitated by the URI Coastal Institute in its role as Chair of the Rhode Island Environmental Monitoring Collaborative and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, working together to evaluate the conditions and trends of the land and waters of the Narragansett Bay Region. The 2014 edition of the Watershed Counts annual report noted that despite frequent rainstorms last summer (2013), beach closures were much lower than in past years. Projects such as the construction of an ultraviolet plant in Newport (see above) and work to curb runoff at Bristol’s town beach (see above) are helping to prevent runoff from polluting swim areas, along with Providence’s ambitious effort to reduce combined sewer overflows into Narragansett Bay. In the summer of 2013, there were 36 marine beach-closure events each lasting a day or more, compared with more than 80 in 2009, when rainfall was less. “From 2005 through 2009, the amount of rainfall was highly correlated with the number of closure events. Since 2009 though, communities … have taken steps to reduce the flow of bacteria into the surrounding waters — even during high rainfall events — and you see that there are fewer beach closures,” the report notes.
Sampling Practices: The regular monitoring season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Volunteer groups, including the Rhode Island Chapter of Surfrider Foundation, Clean Ocean Access, and Save the Bay assist with sampling efforts throughout the year as well.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and/or the Department of Health determine sampling practices, locations, standards, and notification protocols and practices throughout the state. Samples are collected just below the surface in water that is approximately 3 feet deep. The water quality at all licensed marine beaches in the state is monitored. High priority for more frequent monitoring is given to beaches with direct known sources of pollution (stormwater outfalls, septic/sewer connections, high population density, nearby sewer plants) and high usage, and to beaches that have exhibited poor water quality in the past.
Monitors focus on areas of greatest concern and aim to collect samples when high bacteria counts are most likely to be present. The number of samples collected depends on the length of coastline and the presence of physical barriers to circulation (jetties, groins, etc.) that can trap bacterial contaminants near the shore.
If a beach is closed or placed under advisory, sampling is conducted daily until the water quality meets standards and the beach is reopened. Extensive wet-weather sampling is conducted to determine the reopening schedule for beaches under preemptive rainfall advisories. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found or after heavy rainfall will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling schedule did not increase after an exceedance was found or after heavy rainfall.
Standards and Procedures: Rhode Island issues both beach closings (in response to bacterial contamination) and advisories (due to rain). The state's coastal bathing water standard is a single-sample maximum of 104 cfu/100 ml of enterococcus. No geometric mean standard is applied when determining whether to issue a beach closing. Advisory information is posted at the beach and online.
The state's usual policy is to close a beach if sampling results exceed the standard. However, the state health department considers several environmental factors before deciding whether to close a beach because of bacterial contamination, including the presence of wildlife or seaweed, the number of tides since the sample was collected, the history of sample results for that beach, and rainfall. On occasion, if environmental factors do not suggest that fecal contamination is likely, the beach may remain open while it is resampled.
If a known sewage discharge occurs in close proximity to a beach, officials immediately close the beach without waiting for sampling results to confirm contamination. Scarborough State Beach and Easton's Beach have preemptive rainfall standards and are closed when there is more than 1 inch of rainfall in a 24-hour period. Easton's Beach may reopen within 12 hours of cessation of heavy rain if water quality has shown to improve in that time period. These preemptive closure protocols are proving to be effective, and the Department of Health is developing additional closure evaluations based on rainfall. The Beach Monitoring Program generally recommends no water contact for three days after heavy rainfall.
As noted above, the Department of Health discourages contact with water in Upper Narragansett Bay, north of Conimicut Point, for at least three days after heavy rains because the water is directly impacted by wastewater treatment facilities and/or storm drains in the area.
RIDOH's Beach Monitoring Program website gives the public up-to-date information on water quality. The Website provides information on 126 licensed beaches throughout the state. RIDOH posts beach closures, openings, advisories, and current water quality conditions daily throughout the bathing season. Individuals can search for bathing areas alphabetically or by towns and cities. They can get historical data back to the beginning of the program in 1994. The site also includes information on the importance of water quality monitoring, current standards, sampling methods, and monitoring frequencies. In addition to water quality data, the Beach Monitoring Program website contains a section on swimming-related illnesses, their causes, and precautionary measures. Also included is a link to send an email to the Beach Program if you suspect that your illness resulted from swimming at a public beach and would like to submit a complaint.
In June 2012 the Rhode Island Beach Program announced that they had completed phase I of their State Water Interactive Map (SWIM) viewer. The current application shows beach openings and closings, water quality data, uploaded photos of the beaches and beach imagery. Phase II will add a data filtering tool and a help/training tool. The toolbar buttons are dynamic so you can change the basemap, turn the legend on or off, and search for a beach. The viewer requires use of a Silverlight plug-in.
For those who don't have Internet access, RIDOH has a 24-hour hotline (401) 222-2751 that lists all current closures and advisories, provides contact information, and gives RIDOH's after-hours emergency phone number. RIDOH uses a standard press release that can be faxed or emailed to the major print, radio, and television outlets in Rhode Island. Press releases are issued almost daily during the summer bathing season to publicize the status of beaches. When the decision to close a beach is made, RIDOH notifies the beach and updates the hotline and Website. It also distributes the press release within an hour of receiving the sample results.
The Beach Monitoring Program website lists the following 2012 Accomplishments:
Through the Governor's leadership, a commission was created to develop a plan for Narragansett Bay and its watershed that incorporates environmental protection and restoration, sustainability, economic development, and socially equitable use of resources. This commission, called the Governor's Narragansett Bay and Watershed Planning Commission, has called on experts from state and federal agencies, non profit groups, academia, and the public to collaborate on a watershed wide plan for Rhode Island. The Commission was created after the excessive number of beach closures and the largest fish kill in RI in the past 50 years during the summer of 2003. More info on the Commission can be found at http://www.ci.uri.edu/GovComm/Default.htm
In 2004, the Rhode Island Environmental Monitoring Collaborative (RIEMC) was created through legislation. This group will coordinate all environmental monitoring in the state to reduce duplication and, more importantly, get the information to the decision makers and the public. This group is comprised of the state agencies that are collecting information, non profits, and academia. Information on the RIEMC can be found at http://www.ci.uri.edu/Projects/RI-Monitoring/default.html
Surfrider Foundation's Rhode Island Chapter collects water samples approximately once per month, year-round. Their Blue Water Task Force data is posted on the University of Rhode Island's website and on Surfrider's website.
RIDOH spends approximately $210,000 per year on coastal water quality monitoring (EPA Beaches grant funds). RIDOH staff believes that additional funds are needed to investigate and eliminate sources of pollution that affect RI's bathing beaches.
Beach Monitoring Program
3 Capitol Hill, Room 203
Providence, RI 02908-5097
Amie Parris - Beach Program Coordinator
Beach Cell: 401-639-8246
Sean McCormick - Beach Program Assistant
Beach Closure Information: (401) 222-2751
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM)
Division of Water Resources
(401) 222-3961 ext. 7258
Closing/advisory status and monitoring results are posted at http://www.health.ri.gov/programs/beachmonitoring/
Here are some statistics from the 2013 Rhode Island Beach Monitoring Program:
From May 27, 2011 through September 5, 2011, approximately 1908 samples were collected by HEALTH from all 70 licensed saltwater beaches. Samples were analyzed for Enterococci bacteria as required in the Federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act.
The 2011 bathing season showed a decrease in saltwater beach closure events and an increase in closure days from the 2010 season. Whereas 2010 exhibited 45 closure events resulting in 70 beach closure days; 2011 saw 36 closure events and 74 beach closures days. Total volume of rainfall over the beach season was higher during the summer of 2011 (May 27 through September 5) than the summer of 2010. Total rainfall increased from 13.42 inches in 2010 to 14.80 inches in 2011. Significant rainfall instances (> 0.50 inches in a 24-hour period) decreased in 2011, with 11 instances in 2010 and 9 instances in 2011.
It should be noted, funding for the beach program supports efforts at licensed saltwater facilities only. Although freshwater facilities are required to collect samples to ensure public health, the beach program can not assist with these efforts or the identification and elimination of sources of contamination. While the success of the program can be seen across the state at saltwater beaches, freshwater beaches continue the need for additional funding and support.
In 2013, Rhode Island reported 237 coastal beaches, 69 of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 16% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml marine or estuarine water in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.
The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in 2013 were Oakland Beach in Kent County (41%), Fogland Beach in Newport County (37%), Conimicut Point Beach in Kent County (35%), Hazard's Beach in Newport County (33%), and Scarborough State Beach South in Washington County (28%).
For a bar chart showing a 5-year water quality trend, see NRDC's report.
RIDOH, RIDEM, and RIDOT have created a plan for the identification and elimination of pollution sources at 10 priority beaches. Scarborough State Beach and Easton's Beach, both popular surfing spots, were targeted as the highest priority beaches.
In June 2013, U.S. EPA released its latest data about beach closings and advisories for the 2012 swimming season. Note that for some states the data is incomplete, making state-to-state or year-to-year comparisons difficult. Here's EPA's BEACH Report for Rhode Island's 2012 Swimming Season. EPA no longer publishes this report.
The EPA has information on water quality in Rhode Island, including a fact sheet which notes that in estuarine waters, approximately 77% support swimming uses and 14% fully support them but are considered threatened. Nutrients and low dissolved oxygen in the Upper Bay and coves are moderate causes of impairment. Combined sewer overflows are the major source of bacteria contamination. CSOs, urban runoff, and municipal discharges are sources of nutrient enrichment problems in the Upper Bay and coves.
The United States Geological Survey maintains a website, USGS Water Resources of Rhode Island. This site is a valuable source of information including current projects, online reports, publications, maps, real-time water conditions, and educational outreach material for teachers and students.
The University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch Program works with local governments, watershed, tribal, and other organizations to assess water quality by recruiting and training volunteers to become citizen scientists. Research centers on long-term ecological monitoring of RI's fresh water and salt water resources, including lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and coastal waters. This comprehensive program provides training, equipment, supplies, and analytical services tailored to organizational needs. Their biennial report summarizes the water quality of over 120 locations with site-specific data available upon request.
Watershed Watch (RISF BWTF lab)
Information on the location or number of storm drains and sewage outfalls in Rhode Island was not readily available. It can be obtained from individual town planning agencies or RIDEM. RIDEM maps storm drains through shoreline surveys for the National Shellfish Sanitation Program. Storm drains are not permanently posted by RIDOH.
In June 2014 Northeast Ocean Data announced the release of easy-to-use interactive maps of water quality data for the northeastern states from New York to Maine. Based on data provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the maps display No Discharge Zones, impaired waters, and wastewater discharges. Also shown on the maps are boundaries of watersheds and subwatersheds in the region. To view the water quality maps, go here.
The Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) has information on their website about the two wastewater treatment facilities operated by the NBC. They are the Field's Point Wastewater Treatment Facility (WWTF) in Providence and the Bucklin Point Wastewater Treatment Facility in East Providence. The Field's Point WWTF is the state's largest and one of the country's oldest wastewater treatment facilities. Its capacity is 200 million gallons per day preliminary and primary treatment and 65 MGD secondary treatment. For flows greater than 65 MGD, only a portion of the wastewater meets the federal Clean Water Act requirement for secondary treatment. Likewise, at Bucklin Point WWTF, there is 50 MGD preliminary and primary and only 31 MGD secondary treatment capacity.
The most popular beaches are in areas generally not affected by wastewater treatment facilities (although there is one combined sewer system in Narragansett Bay). When sewage releases are anticipated due to lack of sewer collection system or treatment plant capacity, either RIDEM or RIDOH must provide affected towns with a 24-hour warning. The protocol then calls for the town to close the beach upon notification.
An article in the Providence Journal in August 2011 stated that the city of Newport had entered into a consent decree that will require it to eliminate illegal discharges of sewage into Narragansett Bay and prevent contaminated storm-water runoff at Easton’s Beach (First Beach). The primary culprit at First Beach is a stream that crosses beneath Memorial Boulevard and empties onto the beach, carrying runoff tainted with what is suspected to be animal feces. The city recently addressed the problem by completing construction of a $5.7-million plant that, after heavy rains, treats the runoff with ultraviolet light, which kills harmful bacteria. The larger and more difficult problem is ending discharges of raw sewage into the Bay. As noted above, when heavy rains overwhelm the wastewater system with runoff, overflows carrying raw sewage are dumped. There is no single fix to eliminate the problem. The consent decree calls for preventing the flow of rainwater into the sewage system by identifying and removing connections to storm-water pipes and replacing leaky pipes.
There are two wastewater treatment facility sewage outfall pipes of concern to coastal recreational users in southern Rhode Island. Both are found in Narragansett approximately 1,000 feet offshore in about 40 feet of water (at mean low water): one off of Scarborough Beach and the other off of Monahan's Pier. There are a few noteworthy reasons to be concerned about their locale. First, each pipe lies just south of licensed state and town beaches (respectively) that are packed with summer crowds from June through August. Second, they are close to at least 10 surfing spots. The fact that these two pipes lie within permanently closed shellfishing areas also leads to concern about the integrity of water quality in the area.
The State of the State's Waters (these are now called Integrated Water Quality Reports) report (2004) noted the following:
Following a public investment of over $284 million in federal funds and over $64 million in state funds for construction of wastewater treatment systems, the majority of the larger direct dischargers into Rhode Island waters, which are municipal wastewater plants, are now operating reliably with respect to conventional treatment. Programs to regulate direct discharges and industrial pretreatment have been generally effective in controlling and often reducing toxic pollutant loadings to surface waters. Continued vigilance and effective enforcement within these programs is needed to ensure the long-term protection of water quality.
While wastewater treatment has significantly improved over the past decade, water quality degradation due to combined sewer overflows (CSOs) remains a longstanding major concern. CSOs continue to cause bacterial contamination of the Upper Narragansett Bay. In addition, DEM has more recently determined that both CSOs and treated discharges are contributing to a nutrient enrichment problem in the Upper Bay. This water quality problem, while not fully characterized, indicates that nutrients are linked to adverse impacts of reduced dissolved oxygen levels.
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Office of Water Resources has now added a 2006 State of the State's Waters Report, a 2008 Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report and a 2010 Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report.
While the NBC has been recognized nationally for its environmental achievements to improve the condition of Narragansett Bay and its contributing waterways, it still must address another significant source of water degradation, the combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls. Each year, the 66 CSOs in the NBC District release an estimated 2.2 billion gallons of untreated combined sewage into the Bay and its tributaries, namely the Blackstone, Moshassuck, Providence, Seekonk, Woonasquatucket, and West Rivers. CSOs pose pollution and public health risks since they comprise residential, commercial and industrial wastes, and other pollution washed or dumped into storm drains. These overflows carry pollutants in the form of sewage solids, metals, oil, grease and bacteria which can affect the health of those who swim in CSO polluted water or eat shellfish contaminated by these materials. To protect human health in Rhode Island, certain areas of the bay are permanently closed to shellfishing, and over 11,000 acres are temporarily closed for harvesting when there is more than one-half inch of rainfall.
The first construction contract for the CSO program was awarded in 2001 and eleven contracts have been successfully completed since that time. The Phase I facilities include the tunnel, and tunnel pump station. Start-up of the facilities began in October 2008 and millions of gallons of combined water and wastewater that would have gone straight into Narragansett Bay were treated. FY 2009 represents a historical achievement for NBC with the launch of the CSO Phase I Facilities.
The CSO Phase II Facilities are the second phase of the three phase federally mandated CSO Abatement Program. NBC has begun design of the Phase II Facilities in order to ensure compliance with the Consent Agreement with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) and to meet additional regulatory milestones related to CSO abatement. Preliminary design of the Phase II Facilities was completed and submitted for RIDEM review in August 2008. NBC is required to submit final design within one year of approval by RIDEM.
The CSO Phase II Facilities consist of the construction of two interceptors to reduce the discharge from combined sewer overflows at approximately 17 active combined overflow locations during and after wet weather events. The interceptors will be located along the Seekonk and Woonasquatucket Rivers, and will convey flows to the Main Spine Tunnel constructed as part of Phase I. The Woonasquatucket Interceptor will be 19,150 feet long and the Seekonk Interceptor will be 11,200 feet long. This project also includes two sewer separation projects in Providence as well as a constructed wetlands treatment facility in Central Falls.
In April 2013 the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) published the results of the first comprehensive look at where, how often and how much sewage from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) flows into New England waterways. NECIR's research indicated that in 2011, approximately 1.2 billion gallons of sewage water spilled through 58 pipes throughout Rhode Island. The NECIR investigation determined more than 7 billion gallons spewed into waterways across New England, the first such compilation of an annual total. More info.
The citizens of Rhode Island passed a $19M bond in the November 2004 elections that will provide money to upgrade local wastewater treatment facilities and provide municipalities grants to deal with stormwater discharges. As part of the stormwater grant program, beaches have been identified as a top priority.
In February 2007 the USEPA's New England Regional Office ordered the Narragansett Bay Commission and the Cities of Providence, Barrington, Smithfield, Cranston and Bristol to take steps to stop harmful Sanitary Sewage Overflows (SSOs) from entering state waterways. EPA plans to use a variety of compliance techniques to make all of Rhode Island's wastewater utilities and municipalities with wastewater systems aware of the harmful effects of SSOs, and to get them to take action to fix any problems found. EPA has launched a website to provide more information on preventing SSOs, including links to future workshop information.
Up to 1 million gallons of untreated sewage spilled into Woonasquatucket River in upper Narragansett Bay in February 2005 when a sewer pipe that was slated to be replaced either collapsed or suffered a blockage. The Narragansett Bay Commission is spending several hundred million dollars on a massive tunnel that will collect stormwater overflows and hopefully eliminate storm-induced sewage overflows.
A sewer spill that was variously estimated at between 1 and 4 million gallons occurred in Bristol in November 2005 after sewage pumps failed. The state Department of Environmental Management closed waters in Bristol Harbor and surrounding Hog Island to shellfish harvesting for several days until test results indicated the areas could be reopened. At about the same time (a rainstorm two days before Thanksgiving), the rain caused combined sewer overflows that impacted several neighborhoods in Newport.
In March 2011 the state Department of Environmental Management announced that letters would soon be sent to over 1,100 Sakonnet area residents (and thousands more around the state) alerting them that their cesspools must be inspected within six months. Those that flunk must be replaced within a year — or less if that cesspool is deemed a threat to public health. On the list are people whose homes are served by cesspools and are located within 200 feet of coastal/tidal waters, public drinking water wells and reservoirs. The action stems from the Rhode Island Cesspool Act of 2007 which requires replacement of failed cesspools located near the water.
A cesspool is essentially just a covered pit that receives wastewater and allows it to drain into the surrounding soil. Cesspools located near drinking water wells or near bodies of water used for recreation have the potential to contaminate these waters. Rhode Island banned cesspools in new construction in 1968, but there are an estimated 25,000 or so still actively in use, including nearly a thousand in high-risk areas, such as on the coast. The Rhode Island Cesspool Act of 2007 requires all cesspools within 200 feet of the Ocean State shoreline to be removed by Jan. 1, 2014. Using geographic information systems (GIS) mapping and combing through septic system permits and sewer connection documents, the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) was able to identify 945 cesspools operating within 200 feet of the coast, a public well or public drinking-water supply. Of the 945 in violation, 504 of the properties had replaced their cesspools with a an onsite wastewater treatment system — likely a septic system — or had connected to public sewer by late February 2014, according DEM. Of the remaining properties, more than 300 were in the permitting pipeline to be replaced. The remaining 100 or so properties are in violation. Read more.
The RI Coastal Resources Management Council has developed a Clean Marina Program with the RI Marine Trades Association, RI Department of Environmental Management, and Save The Bay to protect the state’s coastal waters and benefit the marina industry in Rhode Island. These groups will be holding a series of public workshops in May in an effort to educate the public on the program.
The Clean Marina Program is a voluntary initiative designed to reward marinas that go beyond regulatory requirements by applying innovative pollution prevention best management practices (BMPs) to their day-to-day operations.
A Rhode Island Operations and Maintenance Guide for Marinas, a Rhode Island Clean Marina Guidebook and a Rhode Island Clean Marina Certification Checklist have been developed by the CRMC and RI Sea Grant as tools to assist marinas toward becoming RI Clean Marinas. Marinas that achieve this status will be presented the RI Clean Marina Award and other highly publicized incentives to distinguish them as top tier “green” businesses that offer clean, safe, and environmentally friendly facilities.
Rhode Island CMC policies with regard to Recreational Boating Facilities (adopted April 2007) can be found here.
Information regarding No Discharge Areas (NDA) in Rhode Island and elsewhere in New England can be found on EPA's website.
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management
Office of Water Resources
235 Promenade Street
Providence, RI 02908
Phone: (401) 222-3961
Alicia Good, PE
Chief, Surface Water Protection
Angelo Liberti, PE
Chief, Groundwater and Wetlands Protection
Russell Chateauneuf, PE
RIDOH has the following information on their beach water quality monitoring Website:
Easton's Beach, Atlantic Beach Club Beach and Scarborough State Beach: The Department of Health discourages swimming, surfing and other full body contact activities at these beaches for a minimum of 24-hours after heavy rainfall. Heavy rains and discharges from stormwater drains directly affect these waters. As a result, these waters may contain high levels of harmful bacteria that may cause illness after a heavy rain.
Statewide: The Department of Health discourages water contact in areas within 200 feet of a running storm drain. These waters may contain high levels of harmful bacteria, which may cause illness.
Upper Narragansett Bay: The Department of Health discourages swimming and other full body contact activities north of Conimicut Point. These waters are directly affected by pollution inputs due to heavy rains and discharges from area wastewater treatment facilities. Water contact should be avoided for a minimum of 3 days after heavy rainfall.
Portsmouth Park and Island Park: The Department of Environmental Management has documented evidence of human sewage in storm drain outfalls and groundwater seeps along the shorelines of Portsmouth Park and Island Park. Though available water quality data at nearby offshore monitoring stations located in the Sakonnet River and the southern portion of "The Cove" indicates safe swimming conditions, these sources are variable in nature and may cause localized areas of contamination, the extent of which is unknown. Consistent with established HEALTH policy not to swim within 200 feet of stormwater discharges, it is advised that individuals also avoid swimming in the vicinity of areas where water seeps from the ground. Because the waters potentially affected cannot be explicitly defined, the shellfish closure area may be used as a guide. Generally described, these areas include the Sakonnet River offshore of Portsmouth Park from Morningside Lane northeast to the point at Stonebridge and for Island Park, the southern portion of the Cove, commonly referred to as "Blue Bill Cove".
Drainage and other improvements under way at Bristol Town Beach are expected to greatly reduce pollution sources from washing into Narragansett Bay. This “environmentally innovative,” project is being hailed as a model of how to green a public park by the EPA. The entire parking lot was torn up during summer 2010 and redesigned to have the storm water slope down into several spots, called ‘rain gardens.’ The water collects into these rain gardens planted with wildflowers and flowering shrubs, and then flows through a perforated drain underneath the plantings that directs the storm water underneath the parking lot to a retention pond built near the lower girls’ softball field. The pond filters contaminants from the runoff and allows it to naturally flow to wetlands along the shore.
To minimize Health Department closures of the beaches, Middletown is moving ahead with a $3.2-million project to extend an outfall pipe into the bay to discharge storm water from the southernmost end of town. All of the storm water from the neighborhood will flow to a pipe sticking out of the bluff below. The pipe will then be extended out into the bay, to waters averaging about 7 feet deep at low tide. The new 18-inch pipe will end in an 80-foot-long diffuser that will promote dilution of the runoff with seawater. Its primary purpose is to catch “the first flush,” the earliest and dirtiest runoff from a heavy rainstorm. A second pipe, 36 inches in diameter, will extend slightly more than half the distance of the 18-inch pipe, 280 feet off shore. It will carry overflow runoff that follows the “first flush” — cleaner water that will be discharged without a diffuser and into waters two feet shallower. The bluff around the two pipes will be reinforced with stone.
A UV stormwater treatment facility was installed to improve water quality at Newport's Easton's Beach in time for summer 2011. The plant cost $5.7 million, with the city using $3.7 million in grants and awards to help pay for it. In addition, the city pays its contractor, United Water, $150,000 to operate it, and $30,000 for electricity to power it. The plant is capable of processing 62 million gallons of water a day. That’s good enough to handle all of the watershed’s runoff from 1.2 inches of rainfall within 24 hours, which is 97 percent of all storms.
Watershed Counts is a broad coalition of agencies and organizations that have committed to work together to examine and report regularly on the condition of the land and water resources of the Narragansett Bay Watershed Region. The coalition's first report (2011) featured information on five key indicators (climate change, impervious cover, beach closures, fresh water flow and invasive species). In 2012, indicators were added for marine water quality, freshwater quality, open space and resource economics. These indicators will be used to describe the condition of the watershed region and then to communicate this information to the public and decision makers in order to inform and guide future management and development of the watershed. The indicators consider the region's interwoven economic and environmental assets. Here is the 2013 report.
Rhode Island completed the Greenwich Bay Special Area Management Plan in 2005. The intent of this plan is to limit development on Greenwich Bay and improve water quality, recreation and fish harvests. As part of the plan CRMC was able to reclassify waters in Apponaug and Warwick Coves from Type 3 to Type 1 and 2. This reclassification restricts marina expansion and other development along the reclassified shorelines. The objectives of the plan include:
The University of Rhode Island's Sea Grant program managed the effort to write the plan, with federal funds awarded in 2002.
The Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP) will serve as a federally recognized coastal management and regulatory tool. Using the best available science, the Ocean SAMP will provide a balanced approach to the development and protection of Rhode Island's ocean-based resources.
Rhode Island employs a variety of methods to educate the public about water quality issues, including brochures, the RIDOH beach monitoring website, signs, maps, and through information included in press releases.
Some municipalities have held public information meetings to inform residents about pollution prevention and non-point source pollution. As an example, the town of Smithfield held a public information meeting on January 28, 2003 about new U.S. EPA and Rhode Island Department of Management regulations that will affect municipalities, residents, and businesses.
Rhode Island's state beaches are going smoke-free. The RI Department of Environmental Management and the RI Department of Health are taking this step to curb litter on state beaches and to protect children and wildlife from the risks and ramifications of smoking on the beach. They ask for your participation in helping to keep the beaches clean, healthy, and smoke-free.
The University of Rhode Island Outreach Center has partnered with the RI Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) to develop new approaches to landscape management in coastal areas in Rhode Island. The goal of the Coastal Landscapes Program is to create a climate of cooperation among property owners, landscapes, and other green industry professionals, and State regulatory agencies to protect environmental quality and encourage environmental stewardship in Rhode Island.
EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.
NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, will be releasing, in August 2009, a first-of-its kind interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.
USGS' Great Lakes Beach Science website has a nationwide database that contains greater than 1200 citations for publications directly and indirectly pertaining to recreational water quality intended for access by the general public and scientific community. It is a fully searchable, downloadable bibliography that has been categorized into major study topics.
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