Beach Improvements Pay Off in Better Water Quality

By ecoRI News staff

Rhode Island and Massachusetts beaches continue to feel the effects of stormwater and wastewater pollution, but investments at the local, state and federal levels have produced a marked improvement in reducing that danger to the health of the shores, according to Watershed Counts, a collaborative initiative of 60 partners that is facilitated by the Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island.

But with the increased threat of climate change-induced sea-level rise and more intense storms, added to fragile funding for beach monitoring, there is a call for increased commitment to clean beaches, according to a new report.

These issues are key features in the 2014 Watershed Counts Report, an annual survey that provides an overview of the health of the Narragansett Bay region. The 2014 edition focused on beaches and the critical steps that have been taken to keep local beaches clean and open.

Judith Swift, the director of the Coastal Institute, said the report addresses both ongoing environmental threats such as polluted runoff and the critical implications of climate change.

“Our beaches will be the bellwether of climate change,” she said. “Not only will we lose beaches due to sea-level rise, but increased precipitation will add additional pollutants to our beaches from stormwater runoff. Investing in our beaches will ensure that future climate change events can be minimized and the public can continue to enjoy a trip to the beach.”

The 2014 Watershed Counts Report highlights the efforts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts and municipalities to protect their beaches. The Narragansett Bay region has 69 licensed saltwater beaches in Rhode Island and six in Massachusetts.

In 2013, the number of beach closure events was 41, not considered bad compared to prior years: 2012 (34), 2011 (45), 2010 (55) and 2009 (86). These results are promising because beach closures are very much dependent upon rainfall, as stormwater flushes out pollutants and bacteria that close both beaches and shellfishing areas. There was heavy rainfall in 2013, but fewer beach closure events when compared with other large rainfall years — 86 closures in 2009 and 84 in 2006 — but efforts at all levels still managed to reduce the total closures.

Actions taken to target the worst polluters have resulted in improvements in water quality at local beaches, according to Watershed Counts. Beaches are open more often because municipalities, with help from state and federal funding, are investing in solving the problems that cause beach closures.

“Using green infrastructure and other best-management practices to protect beach water quality is paying off,” said Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Protection (DEM).

Commitments to improve beaches can be expensive. Newport invested $6 million in an ultraviolet treatment plant, and Bristol put nearly $1.5 million into stormwater upgrades to its town beach. As a result, however, neither Newport nor Bristol had a beach closure last year.

Financial commitments in both Providence and Fall River have led these cities to address combined sewer overflows and improve water quality. The Narragansett Bay Commission, through ratepayer funding, has invested about $575 million to build a storage tunnel and other improvement to limit the discharge of pollutants from combined sewers during rain events.

Fall River has similarly built a tunnel and other improvements, and spent some $160 million to limit combined sewer overflows. Both projects were major investments in public health. Addressing combined sewer overflows has significant implications for water quality and has allowed shellfish beds to be open for harvesting more often.

In what would be a significant step forward for regulators and the public alike, urban beaches such as Sabin Point Beach in East Providence, may reopen after decades of being closed.

What is surprising in beach management is the limited amount of state funding to monitor marine and freshwater beaches, according to Watershed Counts. Funding for marine beach monitoring comes mostly from federal sources. The National Beach Program provided about $200,000 to both Rhode Island and Massachusetts in 2013.

The state budgets contained no funding, despite the fact that beaches are an economic driver, and that the federal monitoring program for saltwater beaches has recently been at issue for possible elimination in federal budget talks.

No federal money is available for monitoring local freshwater beaches — 52 in Massachusetts and 36 in Rhode Island — that Watershed Counts sees as necessary to ensure the public those beaches are safe for swimming, fishing and recreation. There were 16 and 5 freshwater beach closure events in 2013 in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, respectively.

The annual report is developed annually by a collaborative effort among state, federal officials, environmental and civic organizations, the business community, and scientists and researchers at area universities.