Stormwater Runoff Threatens Bays and Budgets

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

While drought is an ongoing concern in California and other regions of the country, Rhode Island and urban areas in the Northeast have a major issue with excess precipitation. The annual combination of rain and snowfall has increased significantly in the past 100 years. Heavy rain, in particular, has jumped 67 percent in the past half century.  

One challenge facing densely populated states like Rhode Island is stormwater. For the second straight year, Save The Bay dedicated its annual legislative priorities meeting to discussing the impacts, costs and health risks associated with managing stormwater.

“It seems like we’ve had 100-year-storm events every other year,” said Steve Coutu, director of public works for East Providence. Coutu noted the problems many municipalities face regarding increased precipitation and the stormwater runoff that follows: outdated drainage systems, persistent flooding of neighborhoods and a shortage of money for upgrades.

The main cause behind this and other related problems is climate change, according to Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save The Bay. Rising sea levels, warming waters and more intense storms are impacting Narragansett Bay’s water quality, habitats and coastline, he said. Clean drinking water is under siege as low-lying wastewater treatment plants are forcing changes to the pipes and drains that manage stormwater.

“We have to set policies and priorities accordingly,” Hamblett said.

Resorting river systems through dam removal has helped manage flooding is some areas. Yet, salt-marsh preservation is also needed to protect the bay’s natural habitats and keep it cleaner.

On the positive side, the 10-year goal of reducing nitrogen by 50 percent in upper Narragansett Bay will likely be met this year. Much of that success is due to the construction of the massive sewer and stormwater runoff collection system operated by the Narragansett Bay Commission. The state has 19 wastewater treatment facilities and many need to be upgraded, as they treat up to 150 million gallons of sewage and runoff daily.

Ineffective cesspools and leaky septic systems also contributed to a historic spike in beach closures in 2013. Worst hit was Greenwich Bay. The challenges for cities and towns is understanding the problem and to pay for new pipes and sewer connections. Some Warwick neighborhoods are resisting sewer connections.

“Communities are wrestling with stormwater pollution and flooding issues,” Hamblett said.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee said he made progress raising money and getting new sewer connections while he served as Warwick’s mayor, but Greenwich Bay is vulnerable to pollution because of its shallow depth and the fact it is ringed by development.

His successor, Scott Avedisian, said Warwick is struggling with pollution because city leaders in the 1950s and 1960s turned down federal funds for sewer systems. The reason, he said, was the belief the sewers would encourage development and threaten the town’s rural character. The development happened anyway.

“It’s only been in the last 20 years that we’ve had to realize we have big-city problems like any other city in the state,” Avedisian said.

The Warwick City Council has resisted efforts to force property owners to connect to sewers because of push back from residents concerned about costs. The city also suffers from having 29 sewage treatment pump stations and pipes in low-lying flood-prone areas. During the floods of 2010, several poured raw sewage into open waters.

Upgrades are being done and more sewer hookups are happening, but "there are no quick fixes and we realize we just have to keep moving forward," Avedisian said.

It's also necessary to avoid jargon when trying to convince the public that change is needed, he said. “I’m trying my hardest not to use (the terms) bio-retention and vegetated swales when I talk to community groups, because they have no idea what I’m talking about. So we talk about bushes," Avedisian said.

Jane Howington, Newport’s city manager, described the flood risk for the city’s Colonial-era Point neighborhood. “Those Colonial homes just can’t be put up on stilts," she said.

Newport also is looking at controlling runoff from its popular bus terminal and visitors center parking lot. She has advocated for a regional stormwater utility district to manage costs. There is approval among her fellow managers in Middletown and Portsmouth for the fee-based system to fund storm and sewer-system upgrades. But, she said, “We don’t know how to make that happen.”

Middletown instead is moving forward with its own utility district. Howington has asked for help from state officials and the General Assembly. “Once Middletown has it, it’s going to be very difficult to expand it," she said. “We need more partnerships ... to push into new approaches to solving problems."

Coutu said a regional stormwater utility district might be a "politically difficult" fee system for East Providence to approve. But, zoning changes are helping and some upgrades are being done to ease flooding, such as stormwater retention areas at parks, and infrastructure upgrades. Funding has come from state and federal grants, and from a doubling of water bills in recent years. “As you can see, it didn’t come cheap,” he said.

Save The Bay executive director Jonathan Stone said Narragansett Bay is much cleaner than it was in 1976, when he first visited the highly polluted Providence River. “As a community, we’ve come a long way in cleaning Narragansett Bay," he said. Thanks to better control of pollutants, there’s more sea life and swimming, but emerging threats exist, he said, namely stormwater.

Legislation is expected to be introduced this year to address the problem. A bill to eliminate cesspools, which were outlawed in 1968, died in the final days of the 2013 session.