High Nitrate, E-coli Levels Threaten Island Health

By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor

NEWPORT, R.I. — Open space and water quality issues on Aquidneck Island are coming into sharper focus as growing development pressures and unregulated use of chemical fertilizers on lawns and at farms threaten local waterways and public health. More than 65,000 island residents and visitors drink treated surface water, and early data from a long-term study reveal a high level of pollutants.

Members of the Aquidneck Island Watershed Council met Sept. 27 to discuss the preliminary findings of a nearly completed three-year study conducted by professor Jameson Chace, associate professor of biology and biomedical sciences at Salve Regina University.

“There’s trouble,” James Marshall, president and co-founder of the council, said pointedly.

“We can now see the trends and major problems within our watersheds,” said Chace, who plans to release a final report on watershed water quality this coming spring. “The three-year study shows a pattern.”

There are three valleys on Aquidneck Island: the Maidford River, Bailey’s Brook and Paradise Brook. Data from the Salve Regina-led study shows high levels of nitrates and very high levels of e-coli in those waterways.

“We see high nitrates and really high e-coli in the lower reaches of Bailey’s Brook and the Maidford River,” Chace said.

Bailey’s Brooks feeds into Green End Reservoir (Easton’s Pond) and the Maidford River winds its way behind Second Beach to Third Beach. Horse, dog and deer feces are the most likely causes of the high e-coli levels in these waterways and chemical fertilizers are the most likely source of the high nitrate levels, according to Chace.

Local beaches are sometimes closed to swimming during the summer because of high e-coli levels — virulent strains of which can cause gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections and neonatal meningitis. High nitrates and phosphate in waterways can cause algae blooms that threaten both aquatic environments and public health. High-density development heightens the threat, according to the Aquidneck Island Watershed Council. And council members claim local officials aren’t adequately addressing that threat.

Peter Fagan, council co-founder but no longer an active member, expressed his hope the towns of Middletown and Portsmouth would become involved to address the problem.

“They should be partners in this,” he said.

The report, which will reveal the results from a three-year study of the island’s major watersheds, will conclude the third week of October. The study was conducted with the help of hundreds of volunteer citizen scientists, local residents, and students from Salve Regina University and the Met School. Clean Ocean Access, Salve Regina University and the Rotary Club provided funding. Participants used kits that tested the sampled water for phosphates, nitrates, dissolved oxygen and e-coli.

The Aquidneck Island Watershed Council was formed four years ago and produces an annual watershed conference, now pushed back to this spring to coincide with the release of Chace’s watershed study.

The council hopes the spring watershed conference will spur action to protect and improve the island’s watersheds. Members are looking to involve the Met School in door-to-door canvassing on the issues of watershed health, with a focus on what residents can do to address the public health threat. Marshall described a number of remedies, from municipal banning of chemical fertilizers to planting of trees to improve stream canopy.

A follow-up study of the genetic mutations of the rare leopard frog in the Maidford River, a kind of “canary in the coal mine” for watershed health, is being considered.