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PROVIDENCE— The Rhode Island Bays, Rivers, and Watersheds Coordination Team (RIBRWCT) released its 2013 annual report last week, highlighting the state’s efforts over the past year to help cities and towns maintain healthy, sustainable water systems. The 40-page report addresses the challenges facing public infrastructure, including wastewater and coastal management, and discusses municipalities’ long-term planning for issues such as climate change.
“Water has to be managed, protected and restored, taking into account multiple perspectives for users, long term needs for sustainability, and robust science and monitoring,” said Ames Colt, chair of the RIBRWCT. “To fulfill that mission, we need a very high level of interagency coordination, form the top of the bay to the mouth, in order to meet the needs of these diverse habitats with multiple users.”
“That challenge is understood intellectually, but very hard to put into practice,” he continued. “Rhode Island is doing as much as any state in trying to formalize inter-agency coordination through strategic planning.”
The report lists a number of initiatives aimed at preserving water resources which are being undertaken by the state and individual municipalities. The state has placed particular emphasis on stormwater management, drafting a standards manual in 2011 and urging communities to develop programs and so-called “stormwater utility districts.”
“Current management practices vary widely across Rhode Island cities and towns, with many municipalities lacking adequate staff or expertise,” read the report. “Inadequate maintenance and renovation of stormwater infrastructure, such as detention and infiltration basins are widely acknowledged problems.”
“The challenge of good, local stormwater management is made even harder by federal and state funding and technical support for local stormwater management that remains inadequate relative to overall need,” it continued.
The report cites a 2012 Clean Water Needs Survey which identified stormwater facility costs of $58.3 million that are eligible for federal and state funding.
“This is likely a considerable underestimate of actual need given significant gaps in information regarding catchment basins and stormwater outfalls that have been prioritized for remediation,” noted the report.
In 2002, Rhode Island passed the Stormwater Management and Utility District Act, which allows municipalities to create stormwater management districts (SMDs) to help mitigate pollution and maintaining existing stormwater conveyance systems. The report further suggests that municipalities contract for stormwater utility feasibility studies, as Middletown and West Warwick have done recently.
“We educate stakeholders about why stormwater is significant as a flooding and water quality issue, [and] what infrastructure is in place already in a town,” said Colt. “How do you manage those assets and how do you figure out what needs to be renovated or expanded in terms of infrastructure? What do you need to do on an operational basis, such as street sweeping? We feel these [studies] are educating municipalities on the why.”
Colt recognized that, with budgets being tight and taxpayers reluctant to see taxes increases for a program such as stormwater management, cities and towns face an uphill battle in convincing that such infrastructure is necessary in preserving future water resources, as well as benefitting local economies.
“We want to see municipalities provide stable sources of funding to support stormwater management programs, but we are patient,” said Colt. “We know these are issues that will take decades to solve, and you can’t just lay down the law and expect towns to pay, sometimes thousands of dollars. But we have to go forward, however incrementally.”
“Many towns get it and want to deal with it, but they know it will take a lot of education and hard work,” he added.
The report further highlights the RIBRWCT efforts to promote water resource management and preservation in light of economic concerns, namely the state’s reliance on boating and marine-based businesses, such as coastal tourism. The report cited the success of the 2012 America’s Cup World Series Regatta, which brought approximately $38.2 million into the hands of local businesses and generated $2.5 million in sales tax revenues.
In closing, the report has emphasized that greater efforts in monitoring water resources, as well as planning for long-term issues such as stormwater management, pollution and climate change, must be engaged at all levels of government.
“We need to be more coordinated in what we tell municipalities,” said Colt. “A lot of what water management is about has to unfold at the local scale, and we don’t do a good job about making it clear about what to do, how to do it cost effectively, and what the resources are that we need to provide.”
“That is something the coordination team will be looking at very closely, working with municipalities in a more transparent and coordinated manner,” he added.
To access the RIBRWCT report, visit www.coordinationteam.ri.gov.