Stormwater Projects Improve Health and Parks

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Foraging geese and an unsightly two-lane boulevard are gone. In its place are a pleasant walking path, new native grasses and a system of rain gardens.

The makeover of a rundown strip of Roosevelt Lake at Roger Williams Park is about much more than landscaping and nuisance animals, it’s about addressing the growing problem of stormwater runoff, according to state officials.

Asphalt, sprawl, antiquated drainpipes and climate change have combined to make stormwater a major headache and expense problem for municipalities. Beach closings, overflowing sewers and flooded streets are a more common problem.

One solution: engineer land and wetlands to become natural and manmade water filters. Press conferences on July 2 and July 3 showcased what can be done.

Roger Williams Park
Geese and the people who feed them are part of the problem. The geese created unsightly barren patches of packed dirt, and left droppings that contaminated manmade Roosevelt Lake.

It cost $400,000 to install rain gardens, swales and natural "biorention areas" to manage rainwater collected from 100 acres of the park. Stormwater and runoff is now diverted to 11 landscaped drainage areas that keep phosphorous and other containments out of the lakes and in the soil.

The project also marks the needed restoration of outdoor areas that for many low-income people are the only natural places they visit. “It isn’t a question of aesthetics, it’s a questions of environmental justice,” said Robert McMahon, the city's park and recreation superintendent.

Contaminated lakes and ponds upstream form the park, such as Mashapaug Pond and Spectacle Pond in Cranston, contribute about half of the water and runoff in the ponds. Officials noted this project is the first of many to reduce pollution and runoff.

During the past year, 50 volunteers planted some 3,000 native plants, and more than an acre of asphalt was removed and recycled at a local facility.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the city funded the two-year project.

Last July, some 400 Canada geese at the park were captured and euthanized through a program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The meat was processed and distributed to soup kitchens in Massachusetts. The geese were residents, non-migratory birds, introduced by the state in the 1950s to state parks. Their population grew because of public feeding and a lack of predators.

Bristol Town Beach
Eleven inches of rain has dramatically increased beach closures to 60 across the state, according to state officials. But the problem could be much worse, they say.

Prior to extensive drainage renovations, Bristol Town Beach closed after most rain events because of bacteria contamination. Thanks to the recent upgrades, the beach has yet to close this year.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., visited the beach July 3 to praise the drainage and retention project and applaud the improved health of Narragansett Bay. A new report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council ranked the state beaches and Narragansett Bay among the top 15 cleanest in the nation for beach water quality.

As chairman of the Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, Reed has secured funds for the EPA Beach Act. The act funded the Bristol beach project, as well as the state’s beach monitoring program. The funds have also helped connect 6,000 homes on Greenwich Bay — another highly contaminated water body — to the municipal sewer system.

The Bristol beach project created a series of underground drainage systems and vegetated buffers for the parking lot and lawn areas. Nearby homes also had drainage improvements done.

Reed said additional funding is needed from Washington for stormwater projects, but also to combat climate change. “It’s not just our issue, it’s an international issue," he said. Much of his time for environmental issues is spent preserving existing programs within the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act from budget cuts, he said. But the status quo isn’t enough. “If we don’t progress, we’ll lose out,” Reed said.

Big picture
Both projects are part of a larger effort to address pollution and stormwater created by a century of poor engineering and increasing precipitation brought on by climate change. Providence is launching a collaboration with neighboring cities and towns to manage stormwater, possibly through a regional stormwater utility district that assesses a fee to property owners based on the size of asphalt, cement and other impervious surfaces that contribute to runoff.

State officials are also showcasing the Bristol project as an example for other communities to follow.

"We've made progress," Reed said, "but we also have to keep up the pressure."