By SHAUN KIRBY
NARRAGANSETT—During the summer months, news broadcasts across the state can often be heard announcing beach closures and openings based on levels of bacteria in the water at any given time. Behind those decisions is the Department of Health’s Coastal Beach Program, through which health officials collect samples and assess water quality. In 2013, those activities are under threat from federal cuts that would end the program.
“Over the last decade, the U.S. federal government has provided substantial support for environmental programs in Rhode Island,” said Ames Colt, Chair of the state’s Bays, Rivers, and Watersheds Coordination Team. “Unfortunately, as federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Geological Service grapple with flat or declining budgets, they have been obliged to cut funding previously provided to the states for environmental monitoring, as well as management and risk.”
According to the Rhode Island Environmental Monitoring Collaborative (RIEMC), of which Colt is a member, the EPA will end its annual support, approximately $212,000, for the Department of Health’s Beach Program. These funds support activities such as sanitary surveys, testing for bacteria, and reporting environmental data, namely water temperature, precipitation, and illness complaints.
"Proposed cuts to beach monitoring would affect the state's ongoing efforts to investigate contamination, as well as its ability to provide the public with the most current water quality results," said Dara Chadwick, Public Information Officer at the Department of Health. "The EPA has proposed a national cut to all beach programs by 100 percent, and the burden of water sampling would likely be placed on cities and towns, and beach owners."
The Beach Program has in-depth schedule from taking water samples and analysis to information releases to the public. The Department of Health’s public notification plan includes a 24-hour hotline during the summer, daily media releases, and a beach sign program. RIEMC, which has recently released its 2010-11 Summary Report, also cited that ‘the Department [of Health] had initiated comprehensive and innovative survey and communications approaches that had significantly shortened the time between sampling and announcing results.’
"The Beach Monitoring program works year-round to ensure that waters are safe for swimmers," said Chadwick. "Its efforts focus on implementing a risk-based monitoring schedule from Memorial Day through Labor Day, working with cities and towns, beach operators, DEM and DOT to find and eliminate sources of contamination, opening and closing licensed beaches throughout the state based on bacteria samples and predictive modeling, as well as educating the public on staying safe at the beach and the risks of swimming in contaminated bathing waters."
At the State House’s celebration of Earth Day on April 24, Colt stressed the need for the public to press legislatures and local representatives for solutions to continue the Beach Program, among other environmental initiatives, which will lose federal funding and ultimately cease to exist.
“Rhode Island faces a major policy and budgetary challenge on how to identify and cultivate new, stable funding sources that will replace federal and state funds that will continue to be lost,” read the Summary Report. “The failure to meet this challenge and the ensuing loss of long-term, baseline monitoring programs will stifle credible efforts to improve the cost-effectiveness and innovativeness of environmental management policies, plans, and regulations.”
Although Narragansett Town Beach would not be affected by the water quality testing cuts, state beaches such as Scarborough, which has been heavily tested over the years, and Salty Brine would lose its current monitoring regimen. Interim Parks and Recreation Manager Steven Wright, who worked for the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) for 36 years, worked in collaboration with the Department of Health’s Beach Program and witness first-hand its importance to water quality and public safety.
“I can only speak about what was done at Goddard State Park, where testing was mandated twice a week when I was with DEM,” said Wright. “The Department is responsible for mandating monitoring based on history, will give a schedule in late spring, and they also interviewed folks about their beach habits.”
“We are fortunate here At Narragansett Town Beach where we are required to only have three samples taken along the beach twice a year,” he added. “Our water quality is healthy, but Scarborough, for example, has to do more aggressive sampling because of storm water drain flow in that area. Beaches that have a regular weekly schedule will be more affected, and [ending the Beach Program] is a loss to the state.”
RIEMC was formed in 2004 with the General Assembly’s passage of the Comprehensive Watershed and Marine Monitoring Act. The group is responsible for fostering scientific collaboration between state agencies, university programs, non-governmental organizations, as well as developing strategies for public safety protection through access to reliable and real-time environmental data. RIEMC holds an inventory of existing monitoring programs across the state, their operational and funding statuses, and also develops suggested areas for future monitoring.
Other programs which are threatened to end due to federal funding cuts include: dissolved oxygen field surveys in Narragansett Bay and the Rhode Island Stream Gage Network, funded through the USGS.