The numbers tell the story and it isn’t pretty.
Collectively, there have been more Warwick beach closures this summer than in any other municipality.
Between Oakland Beach, Conimicut, City Park and Goddard Park, there have been 60 beach closures this summer. That compares with 107 closures statewide and a total of 54 statewide for all of last year.
Those numbers and bay water quality, as being monitored by Save the Bay, indicate that the bay faces a “water quality crisis,” Tom Kutcher told a gathering of news media and elected officials yesterday morning at the gazebo at Oakland Beach Commons.
Kutcher, the BayKeeper for Save the Bay, identified the unusual amount of rain this summer as a major factor.
“When it rains in Rhode Island, we swim in pollution,” he said. He pointed to multiple sources, from fertilizer runoff, cesspools and failing septic systems, fecal matter from pets and animals, oil drippings on driveways and parking lots and “goo from dumpsters.”
Kutcher said this “pollution soup” is not only bad for our economy and way of life, but also the bay’s ecology. He said that the nutrient-rich runoff prompts algae blooms that lead to cycles where waters are depleted of oxygen. He said that oxygen readings of Greenwich Bay found levels lower than those recorded only a couple of days after the massive fish kill of August 2003.
“The pride of our state is in crisis today,” Kutcher said.
But fixing the problem is neither going to be easy nor inexpensive – and that, too, was the message Save the Bay was looking to deliver. The environmental organization is calling for stepped up storm water management and the phase-out of cesspools statewide.
Mayor Scott Avedisian, who also shared the microphone for the press event, called the beach closures a “perfect example of why we should all be concerned.” Avedisian said that, within the next two weeks, the city would post a newly created position for a storm water engineer in the Department of Public Works. The engineer will assess the city’s storm water drains and look for means to control contaminates reaching the bay and the city’s fresh water ponds.
“We’re here to work in partnership with Save the Bay,” said the mayor.
In response to questions from the media, Avedisian said a high number of the state’s 25,000 cesspools are in Warwick. He was joined by Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur in pointing out that a council commission is in the process of examining Warwick Sewer Authority rates and plans to extend the sewer system.
Avedisian also said he favors legislation introduced by Rep. Teresa Tanzi to phase-out cesspools across the state. Current legislation calls for the elimination of cesspools within 200 feet of the shoreline and bodies of fresh water.
Save the Bay executive director Jonathan Stone said there have been advancements in bay water quality with Narragansett Bay Commission’s implementation of the first phase of the combined storm water overflow system. The underground reservoir system enables the collection of water that would otherwise flow into the bay without treatment during heavy downpours. The contained wastewater is then processed at a later time.
Pressed if this year is not simply an anomaly – a perfect storm of beach closures – Stone agreed that conditions have lined up this year, but the data shows a consistent cycle of summer beach closures. Statewide closures for prior summers are in the range of 50 to 75.
He also pointed out that three of the city’s beaches, Oakland Beach, City Park and Goddard Park, are all on Greenwich Bay. He said three factors, wind, temperature and rain, play significant roles in water oxygen levels. In addition, the shape of the bay and the fact that it is shallow contribute to low flushing and the introduction of water by tidal action.
Stone agreed that climate changes and warmer summers could be a contributing factor.
“No question the summers are getting hotter,” he said, “but we can’t count on the weather to solve it.”
As for the elimination of cesspools, Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi called a suggested requirement that homes with cesspools be required to connect with the sewer system or install septic systems a start. He said he wouldn’t favor legislation that would increase taxes and that addressing bay water quality is a “balancing” between addressing multiple environmental and social issues.
Rep. Frank Ferri, who is a member of the council commission created by Ladouceur, said the issue of extending sewers to shoreline areas is being addressed. Yet, as Avedisian pointed out, there are some problematic areas such as Potowomut. He said installing a separate treatment system for the 300-household neighborhood would be cost-prohibitive. Linking to the East Greenwich system was once considered, but he said that town rejected it.
“If this was an easy plan, we wouldn’t be here,” Stone said. “This is incredibly complex. As communities, we must come together.”
There was no disagreement with his summation, although accomplishing what he defines as a course of action won’t be without cost or debate.