Ellen Mecray offered a forecast Tuesday and it wasn’t too good for Rhode Island.
Mecray is the regional climate services director for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and she was in Warwick Tuesday for the Clean Water Legislative Breakfast sponsored by the Narragansett Water Pollution Control Association and the New England Water Environment Association.
Mecray said that, since the 1970s, there has been an increase in extreme weather, which appears even more frequent in recent years. Most recently, those episodes include the flood of 2010, last year’s Hurricane Sandy and this winter’s blizzard.
“The likelihood of those events has increased,” she said.
On top of that, she provided graphs showing an average increase of 10 inches of precipitation, from 40 to 50 inches a year, since 1931 and an average rise in temperature by more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit for the same period.
Mecray likened the atmosphere to a super athlete on steroids. As a super athlete, he or she is already capable of doing extraordinary things, so one can’t say for certain whether the steroids are enhancing performance. As for the weather, conditions have become more pronounced with the increase in greenhouse gases – an atmosphere on steroids.
Sea level is another issue. Mecray said indicators point to a greater than a one-foot rise in sea level by 2100.
“Three to five feet, that’s what we need to think about,” she said.
Mecray’s audience was largely the operators of wastewater treatment plants and, for them, more storms and a rise in sea level would be problematic.
“What can you do to prepare?” she asked.
Mecray didn’t offer specifics, but she pointed to work being done by North Kingstown, Newport and Bristol wastewater treatment facilities, and in general about Rhode Island, she said, “No one else in the country is doing this level of planning.”
Funding such projects was one of the issues touched on by Curt Spalding, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. No stranger to Rhode Island, Spalding directed Save the Bay for many years. Spalding spoke of some federal funds in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but generally offered a gloomy picture of funding.
He said “things at the federal level are a bit unstable” and with sequestration, the regional office is heading toward furloughs for 79 people. He hopes that the current level of fiscal uncertainty is temporary and that “things will level out.” He said having a predictable budget and steady programs are important and enable the agency to work and respond.
Spalding called for an integrated approach, where wastewater and storm water are handled as a whole system. And Spalding also talked about thinking differently.
Speaking about other parts of the country, he said, “Wastewater is actually resource water. It is no longer waste but reused.”
Spalding tied investments in clean water to the economy and jobs.
“It’s not just about wastewater. It’s about building a strong and viable community going forward,” he said.
Spalding called Rhode Island a “place that protects its assets.” He said the state cleaned up the waters of Narragansett Bay long before Boston cleaned up its harbor.
Organized and moderated by Janine Burke, executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority and Rhode Island director of the New England Water Environment Association, other speakers at the breakfast included Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis; Jay Manning, state revolving fund coordinator at DEM; Raymond Marshall, executive director of the Narragansett Bay Commission; and Jeffry Ceasrine, Narragansett town engineer.
Mollis called on the group to heighten awareness of the urgency to address an infrastructure that is largely out of sight and taken for granted. As part of that education, he felt it important that it be made known that this work creates jobs, and that every $1 million spent on construction creates 47 jobs.
Manning talked about the importance of federal matching funds and low-cost loan programs. He said it is essential to keep the pressure on Congress to keep those funds.