Aquidneck Island Embraces Simple Actions to Help Curb Stormwater Pollution

 The rain garden at Common Fence Point Community Hall in Portsmouth, R.I., was built in one day with help from 40 volunteers. The garden collects rain from the roof, decreasing flooding and filtering polluted runoff. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

The rain garden at Common Fence Point Community Hall in Portsmouth, R.I., was built in one day with help from 40 volunteers. The garden collects rain from the roof, decreasing flooding and filtering polluted runoff. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Manicured lawns are not part of the solution

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

AQUIDNECK ISLAND, R.I. — The 175 rain barrels the Green Infrastructure Coalition gave away this year diverted at least 9,625 gallons of runoff, provided each of the 55-gallon barrels had been installed in time to catch this year’s heavy rains.

Mitigating the impacts of contaminated stormwater runoff doesn't have to cost millions and take years to complete. Ongoing low-cost projects, such as the distribution of rain barrels, the installation of rain gardens and natural buffers around waterways, and the removal of asphalt, are helping to reduce the impact of stormwater running off the island’s acres of impervious surfaces and degrading the quality of the local drinking-water supply and popular beaches.

For example, the Common Fence Point Community Hall and Melville Elementary School, both in Portsmouth, have new rain gardens, joining other Aquidneck Island rain gardens recently built in Middletown and Newport, such as the one in King Park that directs runoff into a garden where native plants and mulch collect and filter the water.

Rain gardens are designed to mimic the layered conditions of a forest floor, which naturally filters pollutants. An 85-square-foot rain garden (10 feet wide and 8.5 feet long) 12 inches deep, for instance, can hold and filter about 620 gallons of rainwater.

The island's runoff, polluted as a result of over-fertilized lawns and golf courses, pet waste, wildlife waste, and agricultural operations and rushed along by roads, roofs, parking lots, and even lawns, is having a cumulative impact on the health of local waters.

“Stormwater runoff is a huge issue on Aquidneck Island,” said Sara Churgin, district manger for the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District, which works with famers and residents to implement practices that lessen impacts on water quality. “Everyone contributes to the problem.”

To reduce the negative impacts on beaches and reservoirs, she said, the problem needs to be addressed community-wide, by councils, planning boards, businesses, and homeowners.

At Second Beach in Middletown, for instance, pavement along the wall separating the parking lot from the beach was removed last year, to ease stormwater runoff from the parking area and Sachuest Point Road. The pavement was replaced with native sand, soil and seagrass.

Also in Middletown, at the intersection of Green End and Paradise avenues, pavement was removed and a bioswale installed to decrease the amount of runoff impacting the heavily stressed Maidford River.

Lauren Carson, community organizer for Clean Water Action Rhode Island, a member of the Green Infrastructure Coalition, said lessening the negative impacts on local water quality can be as simple as not using “storm drains as garbage cans” and picking up after your dog during walks around Easton Pond.

“There are a lot of stormwater problems on Aquidneck Island, especially at the Newport end,” she said. “But we need to look at the whole island for better stormwater management. It’s an island-wide problem.”

The keys, she said, are education and public awareness, working together, and “tackling it in different ways.”

Aquidneck Island, with its single, shared drinking-water system, is vulnerable to pollution caused by contaminated stormwater runoff. In fact, as a well-known destination for beach-going, sailing, fishing, and seafood, the island’s quality of life, economy, environment, and public health depend on clean fresh and salt water.

The red tide and blue-green algae currently wreaking havoc on Sanibel Island in southwest Florida provides a glimpse into what can happen to waters, both fresh and salt, that are stressed by climate change, development, and pollution. Blue-green algae isn’t a stranger to Aquidneck Island.

To deal with these locally stressed waters, such as Bailey Brook, Gardiner Pond, Nelson Paradise Pond, St. Mary’s Pond, Sisson Pond, and the Lawton Valley Reservoir, the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission, in partnership with the island’s three municipalities, the Aquidneck Land Trust, and Clean Ocean Access, implemented Island Waters: The Aquidneck Island Water Quality Initiative in fall 2016.

The program was created to help Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport work together to better manage stormwater pollution. The three-year initiative is expected to develop a sustainable inter-municipal partnership for restoring water quality, provide the municipalities with some $700,000 in funding to reduce stormwater impacts, and engage and inform thousands of island residents in watershed stewardship.

“We need to make a difference as soon as possible,” Carson said. “An eighth-of-an-inch lawn is a thing out of the 1960s. It’s now time to grow grass longer and plant flowers. Manicured lawns are not the best choice.”