By MEG KERR/ecoRI News contributor
BRISTOL, R.I. — The town values its waterfront and its beach properties. Local residents use the beach, and each summer supports a vibrant camp program. But for many years, frequent water quality problems resulted in beach closures.
Walter Burke, director of the town’s Department of Parks and Recreation, decided that it was unacceptable to have a town beach that was often closed for swimming. Town leaders, including Diane Williamson, director of community development, and Edward Tanner, principal planner, joined forces with Walter. They quickly gathered a strong working group that included experts from the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the state Department of Health, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Save The Bay to fix the problem.
Since water quality is affected by runoff from adjacent lands, this team started with an examination of the property that drained toward the town beach. It looked at the area’s topography and buffers between the land and water, and examined wetlands on the property. It looked at the stormwater system and examined the storm drains that affected the beach. Septic systems, sewer lines, invasive plants and birds, and groundwater infiltration also were included in the inventory.
Finally, the team considered how the land was used and managed. Did the parking area keep the cars and their leaking oil and fluids away from the water? Were fertilizers used on nearby playing fields and how often? Was the application limited to dry periods or were fertilizers applied during or immediately before rainstorms?
This initial evaluation showed several problems that could be affecting water quality at the beach. The lands adjacent to the beach sloped toward the water and included a field that attracted large flocks of geese. The field was no longer flat, as it was sunken in the middle and the low area was wet most of the time. Chemical fertilizers were regularly applied to the field, and rains were washing goose droppings and chemical fertilizer onto the beach.
There also were four storm drains discharging in the vicinity of the beach and two septic leaching fields in poor condition that affected beach water.
The project team developed a plan, brought in additional partners and together sought funding to address the sources of pollution affecting the beach. Over the course of eight years, with funding from a range of state and federal programs, the town beach has been transformed.
The projects that transformed the beach include:
Removal of two septic systems and leach fields which were replaced with a forced main sewer line.
The beach parking lot was rebuilt with a stormwater collection system, including a treatment system and bioswale on the northwest corner, six bio-retention rain gardens within the parking lot, and three bio-retention water quality treatment cells for the parking lot and adjacent playground. The wildflowers in the rain gardens have transformed the parking lot into a spring attraction for residents and visitors.
More than 100 trees were planted throughout the site to provide shade and discourage the Canada geese.
The beach field was raised 3 feet to eliminate the drainage hole.
Marsh grasses and a buffer of native plants were planted along the north side of the beach, restoring a natural buffer between the developed area and the beach.
All of these projects have made a difference. Last summer, Bristol Beach experienced an 80 percent improvement in water quality and was closed only once, in early June. So far this summer, the beach has only been closed June 5 and 6.
Walter and his team, however, aren’t done. There are a number of projects in the works, including the construction of a gravel and vegetated treatment system for a 36-inch storm drain discharging stormwater from a large residential neighborhood near the beach, repair of an outfall pipe within the wetland to better disperse stormwater, narrowing of the beach road from 20 feet to 10 feet wide and limiting access to pedestrians and emergency vehicles, creation of a scenic overlook on the south side of the beach, remediation of erosion on the south side of the beach, and installation of an educational kiosk focused on environmental education along a new foot path.
Once these projects are completed, the team has a long-term vision for restoration of areas throughout the Bristol watershed.