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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories

Rhode Island


The Greenwich Bay Initiative -
Shellfishing Closure Challenges Rhode Islanders

Greenwich Bay, a 4.9-square-mile embayment of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, is one of the East Coast's most productive shellfish areas. In 1992, a severe Nor'easter triggered elevated fecal coliform bacteria levels in the Bay. Since fecal coliform bacteria is used as an indicator of sewage contamination, the bay was closed to shellfishing to protect public health. Such closures are normally temporary, but when the bacteria levels did not return to acceptable limits within a reasonable time, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management closed the Bay's waters indefinitely until the area could be reclassified as permanently closed.

While the Department of Environmental Management and the Federal Food and Drug Administration launched an extensive investigation to identify potential pollution sources, a number of organizations mobilized to restore the Bay, including the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, the City of Warwick, the Rhode Island Shellfisherman's Association, the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Save the Bay, the University of Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. This coalition, unique in Rhode Island, is linked together by common restoration goals, open and constant communication, and mutual respect for each one's expertise.

Resolute and successful

In 1994, the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program and the University of Rhode Island undertook the first pollution source assessment in the Hardig Brook watershed. Samples taken during three storm events tested so high for fecal bacteria that everyone suspected a broken or failed sewer line or sewer pump station. Instead, the team discovered that a dairy farm had not sheltered its manure storage pile from runoff from the barn roof and farmyard. The contaminated runoff flowed across the farm to a small tributary of Hardig Brook. Once there, the contaminants traveled rapidly downstream.

14 months after the bay was closed, Rhode Island's Governor Bruce Sundlun boarded a shellfishing skiff and participated in the dry-weather conditional reopening of Greenwich Bay.

As soon as the farm was identified as a source of contamination, rapid coordination ensued among the farmers, the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, the City of Warwick, and the Department of Environmental Management's regulatory branches. With the farmers' trust and cooperation and help from other partners (the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District), they designed and helped implement interim best management practices. In fact, their work established a model for dealing with similar situations on other farms. To date, this coalition has secured nearly all the funding needed to install final BMPs.

Failing or inadequate septic systems are another source of contamination to the Bay. To counteract this problem, the partners used Section 319 funding and alternative technology to develop an innovative septic system pilot project. The project provided nearly 50 percent of the funding needed to design and construct advanced on-site wastewater treatment systems on five residential sites. These residences are located in a section of the Greenwich Bay watershed that is not well-suited for septic systems, yet is unlikely to be answered. Among the problems that residents face are constraints such as high water tables and exceptionally small lots. Advanced technologies can address these problems and remove some of the nutrients and possible disease-causing organisms from the septage.

In June 1994, only 14 months after the bay was closed, Rhode Island's Governor Bruce Sundlun boarded a shellfishing skiff and participated in the dry-weather conditional reopening of Greenwich Bay.

CONTACT: Susan Adamowicz
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management
(401) 277-3961, ext. 7272

Flexible Zoning -
The Scituate Reservoir Watershed Project

The Scituate Watershed Zoning Project was developed to help three rural towns in northwestern Rhode Island design and implement flexible zoning. The new ordinance will achieve two goals: the preservation of the towns' rural character and the prevention of new pollution sources that could potentially degrade the Scituate Reservoir, the primary source of drinking water for two-thirds of all Rhode Islanders. Referred to by many as a new tool for saving community character, flexible zoning is not conventional or cluster-style development. Nor is it really new. In fact, many communities developed before zoning ordinances appeared used this common-sensical approach.

Impervious surfaces pose problem

Concerns about the effect of conventional land development on water quality in the area led former Governor Edward DiPrete to commission a study of the watershed. Analysis confirmed that conventional land development projects were adding too much impervious surface, threatening water quality, and destroying the area's rural character. Moreover, the development was often misplaced occurring in the middle of fields, atop ridges, and sprawling across open spaces.

As a result of conventional land development, stormwater runoff increases in volume and intensity and has higher concentrations of pollutants (e.g., nutrients, oil and gas, salts, and human and animal wastes). The higher velocity increases erosion and threatens riparian areas as well as water quality.

New plan boosts profits

Using a section 319 grant, the Nonpoint Source Pollution Management Program of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management helped the Scituate Reservoir communities develop new standards based on flexible zoning. The new plan not only prevents environ-mental problems; it also reduces taxes and boosts developers' profits. In short, everyone wins.

Flexible zoning allows the Scituate communities to guide land development to more appropriate sites within the area. It is a tool that helps planning boards approve building placements and lot lines that conform more closely with land forms and environmental features. Thus, where flexible zoning is available, a farm here or there may be retained; a forested ridge may be preserved; or a wooded lake front may be spared. Flexible zoning weighs the placement of impervious surfaces and land clearings to lessen the impact that most development has on water quality.

Flexible zoning allows the Scituate communities to guide land development to more appropriate sites within the area.

The Rural Design Manual, a guidebook prepared as part of the project, makes flexible zoning easy to understand. It explains the new procedures and standards in nontechnical terms and provides a straightforward reference for community officials, developers, and interested professional and lay persons.

The three towns implementing the new zoning regulations in the Scituate Reservoir Watershed are also being used as model communities. Portsmouth, a Rhode Island community outside the watershed, has recently adopted the new zoning standard. Other communities will likely follow suit.

CONTACTS: Jim Riordan
(401) 277-3434, ext. 4421

Scott Millar
(401) 277-4700, ext.

4419 Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management

Section 319 Helps Common Fence Point Improvement Association -
The Portsmouth Salt Marsh Restoration Project

The Common Fence Point Improvement Association has restored a coastal wetland at the northern tip of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Undisturbed salt marshes are critical habitat for juvenile fish, nesting areas for waterfowl, and a natural filtration system for many pollutants, but this tidal marsh and pond complex had not been functional in 45 years not since it received more than 20,000 cubic yards of dredge spoil from Mount Hope Bay. The spoil drastically altered the coastal wetland system. The marsh turned into a thicket of tall reeds, a mosquito breeding ground, and a dumping site that was also the scene of numerous fires through the years. In addition, the degraded marsh blocked tidal flow and disrupted natural habitats.

With help from a section 319 grant, the Association removed the dredge spoil from more than five acres of tideland. This action was the first step toward recreating the original tidal marsh and salt pond ecosystems. Once the spoils had been removed, the Association's work continued: channels and ponds were installed to enhance tidal flushing, which in turn eliminated mosquito breeding sites and helped rebuild the intricate chain of species dependence.

Finally, engineers built a new tidal channel to connect Mount Hope Bay with two salt ponds in the restored marsh. Then the restoration team recreated a 2.6-acre salt marsh by transplanting seeds and shoots from marsh plants near the site. The existing dike was widened to a uniform width of 40 feet, and water runoff was directed into a sedimentation basin, then filtered across the marsh to the upper road.

The Common Fence Point Improvement Association and its project have been nominated for three awards: a Greenways award, an Environmental Merit Award (from EPA), and a National President's Service Award (the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management nominated Mill Consella Sullivan for the latter).

CONTACTS: Stephanie Powell
(401) 277-3434, ext 4418

Jim Riordan
(401) 277-3434, ext. 4421

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management

Rhode Island's Septic System Maintenance Policy Forum -
A Spearhead for Collaboration

For years, Rhode Island, like many states, has encouraged its communities to adopt septic system management programs; but while launching numerous attempts, few programs have actually materalized. Now that has changed.

Spearheading collaboration, the section 319 program of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) convened the Septic System Maintenance Policy Forum. The forum is a roundtable group that includes representatives of federal, state, and local governments, as well as private associations and citizens. It has delivered two essential advances in septic system management and helped four towns initiate management programs.

Guidance for septic systems inspection

How should septic systems be maintained? How can one determine if a given septic system is working? Previously, there were no standards, but the Rhode Island Handbook for the Inspection of Septic Systems written by nonpoint source program staff, will fill that gap. The handbook describes two types of inspections:

  • A maintenance inspection to determine if pumping and minor repairs are needed, and
  • A home inspection for use during property transfer. It includes detailed instructions for locating septic system components, diagnosing in-home plumbing problems, scheduling inspections, and flow testing and dye tracing. Never before has the subject of inspection protocol been covered so fully.

Loan program and pilot project grants

Never before has the subject of inspection protocol been covered so fully.

Rhode Island estimates that 90,000 or approximately 60 percent of its on-site wastewater systems predate regulation. These antiquated systems, probably cesspools, rarely serve the needs of a modern family. However, cost to upgrade as much as $20,000 for an advanced system often outstrips even an affluent household's budget.

Nonpoint source program staff, who recognized that upgrade costs were probably preventing the adoption of management programs, began to seek a source of funding. Coincidentally, the Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency discovered that the State Revolving Fund (SRF) could be used to provide low-interest loans to fix septic systems.

The agency, in collaboration with the Department of Environmental Management (its regulatory partner in the SRF) then established the Community Septic System Loan Program (CSSLP). Slated to come out later this year, CSSLP marks the first SRF program in New England designed exclusively to provide low-interest loans for septic system upgrades.

A related pilot project has been developed by the section 319 program to help initiate the CSSLP. The pilot project provides $150,000 in special one-time grant funds. Four communities on the outskirts of Rhode Island's very sensitive coastal salt ponds have been contacted to participate in the program. The grant funds are for management plans and startup of the community programs.

CONTACT: Jim Riordan
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management
(401) 277-4700, ext. 4421

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