Volunteers keep careful tabs on Aquidneck Island water quality so people can continue to enjoy some of southern New England’s finest beaches
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
NEWPORT, R.I. — Even on some of the coldest mornings last winter, dedicated volunteers were keeping a watchful eye on water quality along the Aquidneck Island shoreline. After all, collecting more than 2,700 weekly water samples during the past nine years, odds are nasty weather sometimes tagged along.
In fall 2006, Dave McLaughlin and a group of friends developed a water-testing program for a few of the city’s popular swimming holes/surfing spots. Since then, with help from an army of volunteers and a growing list of partners, Clean Ocean Access has morphed into an IRS-approved nonprofit committed to preserving Aquidneck Island’s coast. It even has a recognizable acronym.
COA now collects water samples in all three Aquidneck Island communities year-round and, in January 2014, began collecting water samples at six locations along Easton’s Beach and Atlantic Beach in Middletown as part of its Seaweed Nutrient Analysis program.
Water quality is one of the organization’s core focal points, so future generations can continue to enjoy one of the Ocean State’s signature areas. The nonprofit’s water-monitoring work helped reopen King Park Beach to swimming in July 2011. The beach had been closed to swimming since 2004 because of persistently high bacteria counts.
“In Rhode Island when it rains, people know the water could be polluted,” said McLaughlin, COA’s executive director. “We want to improve water quality so the next generation of ocean enthusiasts think of rain as a gift, not something related to pollution.”
To do that, McLaughlin, COA volunteers and partners such as the city of Newport, town of Middletown, the Rhode Island Department of Health and Department of Environmental Management, and the Environmental Protection Agency are working together to identify the sources of bacteria that are polluting local waters when it rains, and even when it doesn’t.
Later this month, to better identify the sources of dry-weather pollution, COA will begin collecting water samples from three locations around Easton Pond. The moat around the pond feeds the stream that carries bacteria across — well, actually, under Memorial Boulevard — to Easton’s Beach.
Several years ago, the city invested some $6 million in an ultraviolet treatment system to reduce bacteria levels from stormwater that discharges into Easton’s Beach.
A 2007 study had determined that the stormwater discharged from the moat that encircles Easton Pond was a significant contributor to water-quality impairments at popular Easton’s Beach. These discharges during rain events observed as part of the 2007 study had bacteria levels at times greater than 20,000 enterococci colonies per 100 milliliters. The allowable limit for beach water at the time was 104 enterococci colonies per 100 milliliters. The EPA changed the allowable limit this year to 60 enterococci colonies/100 ml.
The UV system consists of a diversion gate that automatically closes when the rain gauge measures a quarter-inch of rain over a 24-hour period. The system has reduced wet weather-related closures at Easton’s Beach, but does nothing to prevent dry-weather events.
McLaughlin believes it’s possible bacteria are lingering in the sediment of Easton’s stream and contributing to high bacteria counts. The COA’s seaweed analysis program and its planned testing of water samples from Easton Pond will help address that possibility and likely introduce others.
“We know from collecting data and working with DEM and EPA that bacteria grows in seaweed,” said McLaughlin, noting that COA and Roger Williams University have identified 36 different types of seaweed in local waters, including the invasive siphoned Japan weed. “With all the excess nutrients in the water, specifically nitrogen, seaweed may well be spreading and trapping harmful bacteria.”
Heavy rains, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) mixed with impervious surfaces, fertilizers, and pet, seagull and geese waste are conspiring to stress some of the state’s most popular beaches and hidden locations by washing nutrients off lawns and oil, grease and sand off roads into the waters that surround the island.
These additional nutrients also could increase the seaweed yield at some Aquidneck Island beaches, creating a cycle of pollution that could be difficult to break.
“Elevated levels of nitrogen in the watershed could make more seaweed possible this summer,” McLaughlin said.
Advances in technology — the city’s UV system, for example — improving stormwater management and increased awareness about nutrient loading have all helped to reduce beach closures on Aquidneck Island and across southern New England. But, the pressures of development, human population growth and a changing climate will continue to stress natural resources.
McLaughlin said the water quality of Aquidneck Island’s beaches and other recreational areas is still very much up and down. He said although there have been improvements, no long-term trend that shows improved water quality has presented itself.
“We’re making progress but it’s still a problem,” he said. “There’s an opportunity here to help solve water-quality and environmental problems on Aquidneck Island. But people have to get involved.”
McLaughlin recommended attending council, zoning and planning board meetings and suggested property owners use less fertilizer.