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Assessing water quality in Rhode Island

July 18, 2013

Scientists and state officials have been working diligently over the past several years to improve water quality in the Narragansett Bay Watershed, an area which extends from Narrow River (above) in Narragansett into the Blackstone River Valley in Central Massachusetts. (File Photo)

NARRAGANSETT—Although Rhode Island is aptly named ‘The Ocean State’ in regards to being home to the largest deep water bay on the East Coast, as well as its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, the state’s water system is much more complex than we often think. Numerous streams, reservoirs, lakes and rivers cut through the landscape, and underground wells provide drinking water for much of the western and southern parts of the state.

Scientists and journalists gathered this past Friday at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus to discuss issues facing Rhode Island’s water supply, from quality concerns to usage and conservation.
The Narragansett Bay Watershed consists of 2,066 square miles in area, with approximately 984 square miles, or 48 percent, within Rhode Island’s borders. Two million people in 100 municipalities call its coastal and riparian surroundings home, enjoying recreational activities at beaches, as well as benefiting economically from its bounty.
The Watershed Counts report, which has been released every April since 2011, is a collaborative effort of state and federal agencies, as well as local research centers to compile and analyze all of the state’s water quality challenges and successes.
“We come up with collaborative efforts on important questions, such as how clean is the water or what are the changes in land use over time,” said Meg Kerr of Watershed Counts. “There is a lot of nuance to [the report] and a lot of areas where we haven’t collected the data.”
“Our goal is to boil all this complicated science into a report card of trends and how we are doing managing parts of the watershed,” she added.
Speakers touched upon the state’s efforts in protecting water quality in both marine and fresh water environments, particularly those stemming stormwater run-off and pollution into Narragansett Bay.
Sue Kiernan of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management outlined the state’s monitoring capabilities in freshwater lakes and ponds, stating that of the 1,420 rivers in Rhode Island, approximately 65 percent, or 917, have been assessed. Of those assessed waters, 60 percent are considered impaired.
She further noted that 56 percent, or 8,545 acres of the state’s lakes and ponds, are impaired from a total assessed number of 15,281 acres, according to RIDEM’s latest report which analyzes data gathered from 2007 to 2012.
“Management is needed across the board to prevent problems,” said Kiernan. “Fixing these problems takes a long time, and can take decades.”
“I think we need better measures of partial progress along the way, and we need to better communicate with the public.”
Water scientists have been especially concerned about the increased prevalence of blue-green algae blooms, which are formed from iridescent blue-green algae called cyanobacteria, in the state’s rivers and lakes.
“It looks like someone poured green paint in the water,” said Elizabeth Scott of RIDEM. “The first case occurred on Yawgoog Pond in the late 90s and the next one in 2007, but since we have been seeing it every year.”
Scott emphasized that some strains of cyanobacteria release toxins which can also be harmful to terrestrial animals and people, noting that there have been cases when pets have died from exposure to the bacteria.
According to Linda Green of Watershed Watch, the cause of bacteria problems in Rhode Island’s lakes and streams stem from rising annual temperatures alongside the inputting of pollutants, namely phosphorus, a common indicator of impaired waters.
For the rest of this story and more local news, pick up the Wednesday, July 17 issue of the Narragansett Times.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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