Summer Thirst Stresses Municipal Water Supplies

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Rhode Island’s strict standards regarding drinking water quality have long been accepted, but the equally important issue of drinking water quantity often is ignored.

That fact is most evident in July and August when many Ocean State lawns are soaked with drinkable water. The over-watering of lawns, plus haphazardly placed sprinklers that irrigate sidewalks, driveways and streets, do so at the expense of drinking water supplies and healthy stream levels.

Lawn watering across the state is growing out of proportion, according to Alisa Richardson, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Management. She has said an additional 40 million gallons of water a day is used in the summer just to water lawns.

“Everyone is pumping water to the max during the summer,” said Jonathan Reiner, North Kingstown’s director of planning and community development. “On the average day there is plenty of water, but when we get into the summer months and we’re filling pools and irrigation increases, the system gets stressed.”

Increased demand comes at the driest time of the year, when the overuse of water lowers Rhode Island’s groundwater supply, which rivers and streams depend on to keep them flowing in the hot summer months. For example, the Hunt River in Kent County often is barely trickling or bone dry in the summer.

Rhode Island receives abundant precipitation for most of the year, which recharges the state’s freshwater sources and provides sufficient quantity to both meet residential and commercial needs and support natural ecosystems. But, as forests and fields are converted into asphalt and concrete, alterations in natural stream flow occur and freshwater supplies are strained.

Land development reduces the amount of water available in Rhode Island. A 2003 report entitled “The Economic, Social and Environmental Impacts of Water Use in Rhode Island” estimated that the development of 96,000 acres between 1961 and 1995 reduced the state’s available water supply by between 10 billion and 23 billion gallons annually.

There is only so much water that can be taken from a freshwater system in an environmentally sound manner, and much of it is wasted during the hottest and driest two months of the year.

“We stress habitats by pumping out too much water,” Richardson said. “If we do that for a long period of time, fish start dying and habitat begins to disappear.”

Sufficient stream flow is essential for aquatic life, and also for recreation — there are 46 public boat ramps to freshwater sources in Rhode Island — water quality and water supply. Stream flow is primarily affected by rainfall and runoff and with supplies recharged from groundwater. In Rhode Island, where groundwater and surface water are closely linked, there are about 1,500 miles of rivers and streams and nearly 20,000 acres of lakes — all of which can be stressed in the summer when water demand is sometimes, literally, off the charts.

In North Kingstown, for example, the town’s 11 municipal wells have a pumping capacity of 7.9 million gallons of water a day. Since 1997, there have been many days in July and August when the town was close to reaching that capacity, with demand hovering in the high 6 millions to low 7 millions. The average demand for the rest of the year is 3.25 million gallons a day.

Last summer was a wet one, so the demand during the two driest months never topped 5 million gallons a day, but on two occasions in August 2005 — a particularly hot and dry summer — North Kingstown’s wells were asked to pump beyond capacity — 8.1 million gallons one day and 8.2 million gallons nine days later.

“We prayed people would stop using water. We were using more water than we had the ability to pump,” said Reiner, noting computer software allows the town to monitor water use in real time. “We had to move the water around from one pump area to another.”

The summer of 2005 also featured 18 days when North Kingstown needed to pump 7-plus million gallons of water to meet demand. In the four full summers since then, water demand hasn’t reached 7 million gallons. The town, however, has had to pump 6-plus million gallons 11 times.

North Kingstown, though, isn’t the only municipality facing a stressed water system in the summer. Cumberland, Jamestown, Westerly and Woonsocket, to name a few, also are coping with unsustainable water demands.

Stream flow is naturally low in the summer when rainfall is quickly absorbed by trees and vegetation. During these same months, demand for water is highest, particularly in suburban areas where outdoor water use often is double or triple wintertime demand.

In July and August, much of the state’s drinking water supply is used on lawns that actually only need about an inch of water a week, according to the University of Rhode Island’s Healthy Landscape Program, and on the cleaning of sidewalks, patios and driveways with a hose rather than a broom.

Reducing outdoor water use is the best way to reduce demand and free up water availability for future growth and development, according to a recent reported compiled for North Kingstown by the Horsley Witten Group, a Massachusetts-based firm that deals with sustainable environment solutions.

The company recommended several ways to reduce outdoor water use, including a once-a-week watering policy — an odd-even watering ban isn’t effective, according to the consultants — and increasing the water rates for those who use 75,000 gallons or more per quarter.

In fact, most Rhode Island water-rate structures don’t encourage conservation or increased water-use efficiency. These year-round rate structures consist basically of a uniform usage charge plus a service fee, even during the months of peak demand. Block Island has the only water-rate structure that incorporates seasonal rates.

“You might be paying a fairly cheap rate for good quality water to drink, but your neighbor might be using ten times as much and paying the same rate,” Reiner said, “and because of that someone else can’t utilize their property properly.”

Better water management practices, however, don’t hinge on changing this one-size-fits-all water-rate structure. Low-flow faucets, toilets, urinals, showerheads and irrigation systems help conserve water. Plumbing code changes in the 1980s and ’90s require lower-flow fixtures to be installed in new buildings and during the remodeling of bathrooms and kitchens.

Rain barrels store water for use later on gardens, and larger scale rainwater harvesting though the use of cisterns is being utilized at the Quonset Development Corp.’s new administration building and at a private florist and gardening supply store in Wickford.

The Gordon Avenue Business Incubator incorporated rainwater harvesting when it converted the former factory space in Providence to commercial office space. The project uses the building’s flat roof for the collection of water that is internally stored and re‑circulated for internal use in the flushing of toilets and urinals.

Water is a valuable resource, Rhode Island needs to get creative when it comes to protecting its quality and quantity.