Warwick Pond flooding plan sinks again

Work almost certainly won't start on phragmites removal until 2020

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Nancy Leonard took a step onto a portion of her back yard that used to be a clean, sandy beach leading out to the waters of the southern tip of Warwick Pond. Her foot sucked down into the mud. She walked out another 20 feet, now shin deep in water, recalling how much things have changed since she and her husband John purchased the house on Hilton Road in 1973.

It started in the 90s, she said, attributing an increase in the frequency of flooding during the rainy spring season with increased activity at the airport. But since 2015, things have gotten worse. Right now, the area is the driest it has been in a couple years according to her estimation, but even still there is an approximately 30-foot area that has been encroached and made swampy due to flooding.

“This whole area just becomes a skating rink in the winter,” she said, pointing to an area of low elevation at the foot of her sloping back yard. It was also around 2015 that Leonard first noticed the rapid growth of nearly eight-foot-tall weeds in a large section of her back yard where her family used to play volleyball.

These massive reeds are an invasive, notoriously hardy species known as phragmites. The ones visible in Leonard’s yard – and really, you can’t miss them – are located on the banks of Buckeye Brook, the waterway in which water flows out of the pond. The plants are the known culprit causing water levels in the pond to increase, which has contributed to erosion of land around the pond and a decrease in the run of Buckeyes, which travel up the pond’s tributaries to spawn.

Leonard isn’t the only one experiencing a loss of land due to the flooding, and those affected have been hoping for relief from the issue for nearly four years.

Alas, their hopes for a happy ending took another shot recently, as work that was expected to begin within the next couple weeks to remove the weeds and dredge the buildup of sediment in which they are entrenched was delayed once again, and now almost certainly cannot begin until this time next year at the earliest.

“We're all very frustrated. This December will be four years that the first email went out that there was a flooding issue and that it looks like the water is rising on Warwick Pond. It's unacceptable,” said Philip D’Ercole, facilitator of the Friends of Warwick Ponds community advocacy group. “Our taxes just went up and our acreage went down on the water. Does that make sense to anybody? We're losing land. Some people have lost 30 to 40 feet of property in their back yard.”

What happened?

After years of hypothesizing, multiple studies in prior years and a permit delay in 2018 that squashed any slight possibility of getting the work done then, it seemed the city was finally on track to get remediation work done on the issue this year.

A consultant from EA Engineering (that was chosen to oversee the project) spoke at the City Council meeting in late February, confirming once more that phragmites buildup was contributing to higher water levels, flooding and erosion around the pond and a decrease in the buckeye run.

The solution proposed was to remove a 1.5-acre area of phragmites, which was projected to cost in the range of $825,000. Due to the stingy nature of removing phragmites, there is a finite time window in which the work can be done (late summer and through the winter), so for things to go according to plan, the city would have had to put the project out to bid as early as tomorrow, and secured a contractor by October at the latest.

The city originally sent its permit application for the alteration of wetlands to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) – which is the most stringently regulated permit application for freshwater bodies, according to DEM – on June 13, 2018.

According to Chuck Horbert, who at the time was the supervising environmental scientist for DEM’s freshwater wetlands program and is now the Deputy Administrator in the Office of Water Resources, these types of permit applications typically take between 8-10 months to finalize, which can easily become much longer if DEM requires additional information or clarification on the proposed work.

Due to a couple of those clarifications being required, Horbert said, Warwick did not receive approval for the project from DEM until July 19, 2019 – which didn’t leave much time to prepare a bid.

“We knew it was going to be tight,” Horbert said.

Still, the city was hopeful to go out to bid. But the coup de grâce for the project this time came from an unexpected source.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains oversight over all proposed projects that include dredging of navigable waterways. Normally, according to Horbert and Eric Hindinger, Engineering Department project manager for the city of Warwick, the Corps will approve a permit based on DEM’s ground work. Indeed, it even states in the permit approval letter to the city that:

“This Permit also constitutes your authorization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ("Corps") under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act for the work proposed...You are, therefore, not required to file a separate application with the Corps.”

However, the Corps maintains the authority to request an additional review of any such project at any time, which is exactly what happened in this case.

“The Army Corps of Engineers is currently reviewing the project,” Hindinger told the City Council during their Aug. 19 meeting. “Normally this is done concurrently with a DEM review, but for some reason it has changed a bit.”

Horbert said that the person DEM had been communicating with from the Corps was transitioning either into another role within the organization or was going elsewhere, and that the person who took over in that position subsequently was the one to request additional information and would be continuing the review process, a decision that effectively ends the possibility of work being able to be conducted in time this year.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded to an email inquiry stating the following:

“Pursuant to Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the Corps of Engineers regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into jurisdictional waters and wetlands. Accordingly, this project appears to be a regulated activity in which Corps authorization is required.”

“The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), who is partially funding the project, is the lead federal agency. On behalf of HUD, the City of Warwick's Office of Housing & Community Development has completed an Environmental Assessment (EA), which includes NEPA [National Environment Policy Act] compliance documentation. In response to our request, the EA was provided to the Corps on August 28, 2019. In accordance with the Rhode Island General Permit (GP), the project is currently under review.”

Concerns of contamination?

A lingering unknown lurking beneath the surface near the area in question is a former landfill located close to T.F. Green Airport – the site of the former “Truk-Away” disposal site. Investigations of the site over the years, according to a report from 2013 by EcoRI, have included an EPA inspection in 1993 and a survey from EA Engineering in 2008. The probes reportedly confirmed there were a number of environmentally hazardous materials dumped at the site, including medical and electrical waste, among other alleged dumping.

The land is owned by the state of Rhode Island, which has caused some in the city to pose the question of whether the state should be the one taking charge and working on the site.

“I'm not sure the city should be doing this project at all because it is on state land and we're talking about land where there's a potential contamination,” said Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix at the Aug. 19 meeting. He cited a “potential multi-million-dollar liability” if the city begins work and finds out that dredged sediment contains hazardous material. “Maybe there's something we can do to try and get the state to take up responsibility and officially be the ones leading the way on this when the project can be done.”

Michael Zarum, who in the past worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and has been an outspoken advocate (and critic of the city's involvement in the project) for the phragmites remediation project as the president of the Buckeye Brook Coalition, agrees.

“State and federal regulatory agencies at this point do not have a full, detailed toxics inventory of the hazardous material in the landfill,” he said on Wednesday of the sediment located under the former landfill. “What is the city going to do if they scoop up a bucket and there's toxic soil?” He added that he predicted the project would be a difficult one to get off the ground and do correctly back in 2015.

“I said Warwick would get no physical work done until September of 2019, which is a week away. Has there been any construction work done?” he said. “I highly welcome a thorough review and investigation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

According to DEM public information officer Gail Mastrati, the state Department of Administration and the state Department of Transportation, along with other “potentially responsible parties,” have formed a cooperating group to conduct a site investigation of the landfill, which will analyze air, groundwater, surface water, soil and sediment for possible contaminants. Mastrati said that work, with GZO GeoEnvironmental acting as the environmental consultant, began this week.

This could be seen as a silver lining amidst the bad news of another project delay, as ideally the site investigation could put to rest or confirm concerns of potential liability should the site contain contamination.

Ward 3 Councilman Timothy Howe, whose ward includes Warwick Pond and recently put forth a Council resolution asking the state for assistance in handling the issue, summed up the feelings of those affected succinctly.

“It’s frustrating. It’s unfortunate. I just look forward to a resolution,” he said.

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