Interagency Commission Quietly Manages Stormwater

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Don’t let the cumbersome name, Rhode Island Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Coordination Team, distract from its mission. How well state agencies and the Statehouse work together influences the success of Rhode Island’s water-quality management. This coordination effort, which must at times be akin to herding cats, is largely directed by the initiative's two-person staff.

The Rhode Island Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Coordination Team (BRWCT) was created in 2004 by state law. This state interagency commission was created to protect, manage and restore the Ocean State’s waters, both fresh and salt, and watersheds.

The decade-old measure was passed without any funding to support its work. In fact, it took two years before any funding was provided. Michael Sullivan, then the director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), offered to absorb the cost of paying two staffers, including the full-time chair who is appointed by the governor, and providing office space at DEM headquarters on Promenade Street.

Ames Colt, Ph.D., has served as the BRWCT chair since. His work is supported by a full-time office assistant. The agency’s projects and programs are supported by revenues from various state fees, such as the one for septage disposal.

Rhode Island and southern New England’s water resources are intimately connected, according to Colt. In order to protect the region’s most vital body of water, Narragansett Bay, the rivers and streams that feed into it must be protected from pollution and degradation, he said.

“It’s sometime hard to see the big picture,” Colt said. “Our job is to foster interagency collaboration and review when it comes to managing our water resources.”

Since each state water agency has distinct responsibilities and authorities, no single agency is actually responsible for all of Rhode Island’s fresh and marine waters. That’s why the BRWCT was created, to coordinate the efforts of seven state agencies to better manage stormwater runoff, water-reliant economic development and climate-change adaptation.

Since 2007, the BRWCT has invested nearly $3 million in water resources management. Among the biggest challenges faced by the region is protecting Narragansett Bay from stormwater runoff, which rushes off impervious surfaces such as parking lots, roads and roofs, carrying a soup of tar, oil, chemicals, metals and other harmful pollutants. This toxic brew eventually ends up in southern New England’s signature resource.

The effort to better manage stormwater runoff requires an unprecedented level of coordination between state agencies and comprehensive partnerships between state and municipal governments. BRWCT, which is not a regulator, provides that leadership. It also is tasked with educating the public about the importance of long-term water resources management.

The biggest victory in the ongoing battle to better manage stormwater runoff has come in the past several years. “Stormwater is now recognized as a problem,” Colt said. “The severe flooding of 2010 really introduced many to the importance of stormwater management.”

As evidenced by the March floods of nearly five years ago, inadequate stormwater management worsens flood damages. However, the price of better stormwater management can be daunting and requires the innovative use of federal, state and local funding.

In helping lead Rhode Island’s efforts to mitigate the impacts of stormwater runoff, the BRWCT has supported efforts — both technically and financially — in Bristol, Middletown, West Warwick and upper Narragansett Bay to assess the idea of creating stormwater management districts.

Rhode Island law allows not only individual municipalities but also groups of municipalities to establish stormwater management districts as a means of funding improvements to stormwater infrastructure. The BRWCT worked with the Conservation Law Foundation to create a report that looks at the state’s stormwater management district law.

The September 2013 report simply entitled “Stormwater Management Districts in Rhode Island: Questions and Answers” found that maintaining the infrastructure needed to minimize the amount of stormwater runoff entering Narragansett Bay is expensive. To address this expense, the report highlighted some creative management solutions that are being tested in different parts of the country.

Stormwater runoff, after all, is a leading cause of water-quality impairment in Narragansett Bay and in Rhode Island’s rivers and streams, according to the BRWCT’s most recent annual report.