How Clean is Narragansett Bay?

Hundreds of millions have been spent on improvements.

At Conimicut Point Park, a humble little patch of grass and dunes hidden behind an old Warwick neighborhood, you can stand at the very tip of a sandy point, with a beach stretching behind you to either side and the classic Conimicut Lighthouse right in the middle of the bay before you. This spot is a dividing point: To your right lies Narragansett Bay, stretching southward to Prudence Island and Jamestown, and to your left lies a strangely undefined region — labeled on most maps as the Providence River, though few call it that. This is where what many Rhode Islanders call the upper bay begins.

While the names associated with the waters north or south of Conimicut may be vague and inconsistent, the distinction is very real. Official maps kept by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) draw a hard black line from the tip of Conimicut Point straight across the water to Nayatt Point, in Barrington, on the far side. All the tidal waters north of this line are marked “Shellfishing Prohibited.” This ban is in force all the time, every day, all year round, and nobody expects it to be lifted anytime soon. There’s also no swimming allowed at the beaches north of this line, so for summer visitors to Conimicut, that means you can go for a swim on the south side of the point, but not on the northern shore.

These restrictions are a lasting legacy of our industrial past, when we paved over more than half of the watershed and dumped raw sewage, industrial chemicals and trash directly into the bay. For decades, factories discharged their wastes and dyes into rivers, and suburbanites routinely dumped their used motor oil down storm drains, apparently believing the waters would magically carry it away. Until 1972, when the Clean Water Act was enacted, there were virtually no rules against all this dumping.

Now it’s 2016 — just forty-four years later — and if you stand on the tip of Conimicut Point, it’s hard to tell the difference between those long-polluted waters to the north and the open bay to the south. Hundreds of millions have been spent on upgrades to sewage treatment plants and stormwater systems, and factories no longer dump chemicals into the rivers. The rank and aromatic floating mats of filth that people still remember, from not that long ago, are mostly gone. The water usually looks clear and clean and even smells okay, and last summer, the upper bay’s shallow coves and crannies right up to India Point Park and even up to Waterplace teemed with schools of menhaden.

But this renaissance is still in its early stages. Change was slow for many years, and only in the last few have those residents who pay attention begun to notice a dramatic improvement in the water quality. To many Rhode Islanders, even those who live close to the coastline, the densely populated upper bay is not yet on the radar as a recreational asset for the state. That’s starting to change.

Sabin Point Park, sited at the edge of a densely settled old neighborhood, exemplifies the complex story of the upper bay. On a warm winter afternoon, the place is frequented by dog walkers, mothers with kids and older folks relaxing on the benches, soaking up the sun and the wide bay views. In the summer, the place is always busy, says Jeanne Boyle, planning director for the city. There’s a popular floating dock, lots of fishing and a boat ramp. Families enjoy the playground and the sandy beach, the cool breezes and sunsets. “People really love this park,” says Boyle. It’s close to home and easy to get to.

But right in the middle of the sandy beach lies an aging drainage pipe, about three feet wide, carrying a persistent flow of stormwater from local streets, driveways and rooftops. The water that flows out of there is contaminated with dirt, oil, pet waste and lawn fertilizers from the neighborhoods uphill. The nutrients in this effluent feed a line of thick green algae, stretching right across the middle of the beach and out into the bay, where it attracts Canada geese and seagulls that add their own polluting waste to the waters. It’s a problem, says Boyle, and it’s not going to be easy to fix.

 

 

But that pipe, though it’s hard to miss, represents just one part of the bigger story. “Because of a lot of improvements that have been made to the bay overall, the water quality here has improved immensely,” says Boyle. “[The state Department of Health] has been monitoring the water quality here and most days of the year, the water is actually clean enough to swim.” The city has spent $53 million in recent years, Boyle says, to upgrade the sewage treatment plant, located about a half mile north of the park. Meanwhile, the Narragansett Bay Commission has completed phases one and two of a massive project to divert combined-sewer overflows from Providence and the nearby urban areas. Those systems used to flush raw sewage into the bay on rainy days, when the storm drains overflowed. The improvements have reduced direct discharges of nutrient pollution into the bay by 50 percent, according to the 2015 report by Watershed Counts, a collaborative project headed by the URI Coastal Institute and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program.

DEM’s Angelo Liberti at Conimicut Point; Conimicut Point marks the unofficial beginning of the upper bay; East Providence planning director Jeanne Boyle.
 

Stormwater discharges now are the main driver of beach closures, which are determined by bacteria limits set by the state Department of Health. Boyle said the city is working with Save the Bay and Brown University to find grant support and develop a variety of projects to address the local stormwater issues and improve the water quality. Wenley Ferguson, Save the Bay’s director of restoration, showed me a few spots along the perimeter of the park where she plans to install green infrastructure projects that will collect stormwater and slow it down, so it doesn’t rush into the bay during every rainstorm. “This allows the first flush of pollutants to infiltrate,” Ferguson says.

Brown University students will monitor the bacteria and nutrient levels from the stormwater pipes to assess the effectiveness of the green infrastructure. Additionally, Save the Bay will work with local residents to educate them about the use of fertilizers, disposal of pet waste and other strategies for reducing stormwater pollution at the source. “It’s complicated,” says Ferguson. “There’s no overnight fix.”

The Watershed Counts report is optimistic that Sabin Point will be the first upper bay park to open for swimming, “bringing the beach to the city.” The change would stimulate economic growth, says the report, adding jobs for lifeguards and bringing in revenue from visitors to the park. Community benefits of the park also include stress reduction, more exercise and great memories for families. “Don’t pack your beach bag quite yet,” however, the report concludes. Despite all the excitement about the urban beach potential, and the widespread support, it’s going to take time to create new infrastructure that can ensure swimmable waters all summer long. Some advocates have said an open beach at Sabin Point might be just one or two years away. Boyle says she’s optimistic it will happen, but it might take five to ten years.

The old neighborhood uphill of Sabin Point is typical of many neighborhoods in the upper bay. When these small houses were built early in the last century, many of them were summer homes, with only cesspools for waste treatment. Over the decades, sewer systems have been installed, homes have been upgraded and expanded, roads have been paved and sidewalks added. On Google Earth, the neighborhoods around the upper bay look like a sea of rooftops and driveways. In Warwick, John Howell, editor and publisher of the local Warwick Beacon newspaper, has been keeping an eye on these changes since 1968.

Over coffee in a Conimicut diner, Howell remembers the Ciba-Geigy plant that operated alongside the Pawtuxet River in Cranston, back in the early 1970s. “It was not unusual to see Pawtuxet Cove with foam on top of it that would blow in the wind. You knew something was drastically wrong,” he says.

Howell says while much of the city now is tied in to sewer systems, many homes in Warwick’s Bayside, Potowomut and Warwick Neck neighborhoods still have cesspools. “Regulations now require people to connect to sewers or have an approved septic system, if they’re within 200 feet of the shore,” he says. Those changes take time, but eventually cesspools will be a thing of the past, adding to the improvements in the upper bay’s water quality.

Just north of Conimicut, in Cranston’s Edgewood neighborhood, sailors at the Rhode Island Yacht Club also have been close observers of the changes. “We’ve noticed oysters growing here again, which we didn’t have even five years ago,” says Craig Forbes, past commodore of the club. Not that long ago, boats used to discharge their wastes directly into the bay, he says, but now the entire bay is a no-discharge zone. “The bay’s had a few years now to clean itself up, and each year it gets cleaner and cleaner,” he says. “It’s a more pleasant experience here. You don’t have the adverse smells from the pollutants at low tide. I’ve noticed a lot more fish around, too.”

Michelyn Saccoccio, the club’s rear commodore, remembers summers when she and her friends would swim in the bay near their parents’ boats. “We’d be in the water, and the parents would call out, ‘Someone just used the head! Get out of the water.’ It was awful. Now everyone uses the pump-out stations.” Better water quality has made a big difference to the yacht club, says Saccoccio. “We spend a lot of time out on our boats, or holding events outside, and it doesn’t smell bad like it used to,” she says. “But it can always get better. It would be great to be able to swim here.”

The changes the sailors have noticed stem not only from the improvements in waste treatment, but also from ongoing efforts to restore coastlines and habitats. Just across from the yacht club, along Narragansett Boulevard, Stillhouse Cove now is home to a popular neighborhood park, where wedding parties stop for photos, dog walkers rest on benches to enjoy the bay view and yoga classes meet on the grassy lawn. But ten years ago, the cove was choked with invasive reeds and overrun with sediments. Every rainstorm would bring a rush of trash and debris, flushed from storm drains, which tangled in the grasses, adding to the blight.

 

Edgewood resident Barbara Rubine actively pushed to clean up nearby Stillhouse Cove.
 

Barbara Rubine, whose home overlooks the park, has been an active advocate for the cove since the 1980s, working to create a nonprofit advocacy group and finding partners in city, state and federal agencies, and at Save the Bay. “Now we have a beach and a new boat ramp,” says Rubine. “There’s been a real increase in wildlife; we’ve seen deer, bald eagles, herons and there’s a red fox that lives here. And a lot of native plants are starting to return.” The changes have been dramatic, but she says there’s still a lot of work to do. “We need to pay more attention to litter,” she says. And she’s working with the city to develop plans for better management of the neighborhood’s stormwater. “A park like this adds to the quality of life in your community,” she says. And it helps that the foul odors, once common on hot summer days, have for the most part faded away.

Farther up the west side of the bay, Edgewood Yacht Club hosts the Brown University sailing team, and just to the north, Johnson and Wales University has expanded its waterfront presence. JWU recently bought a former boatyard adjacent to its harborside campus at Fields Point, and is upgrading the site for use by its sailing team and the new women’s crew team. Wayne Kezirian, senior vice president and general counsel at JWU, says the upper bay by the campus has great assets for competitive small boat sailing, all year round. “It’s easily accessible, the currents are somewhat unique and the winds off the hills make sailing challenging,” he says. “The stormwater overflow system has made a huge difference, in this part of the bay. This is a very cool spot. It’s a hidden gem, really.”

Not all of the upper bay is on the upswing. On the same road north of JWU, some of the metals-processing plants along the shoreline continue to raise concerns about their lack of pollution controls. The Port of Providence is expanding its operations, and recently paved over more of Fields Point. It’s expected that the port development will comply with the state’s strict water-quality standards, and will add public access to some popular fishing spots along the shore. But the state needs to do more, according to Save the Bay, to ensure none of those private operators in the port violate the Clean Water Act.

Save the Bay says DEM and the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council need more support and resources to ensure that they keep enforcing the act. In a petition posted online in December, the advocacy group wrote, “A decade of cuts to environmental protection has crippled our state’s ability to enforce environmental laws consistently and fairly. When these laws are not enforced, pollution threatens and damages our environment and most precious natural resource, the Narragansett Bay, and often, the damage is irreversible; the health and safety of Rhode Islanders are put at risk; businesses that violate the law can gain a competitive advantage over those that play by the rules; and taxpayers can wind up paying the price for environmental cleanups that could have been prevented.” The group asked Governor Gina Raimondo to allocate more resources to DEM and CRMC for enforcement in the state’s 2016 budget.

North of Fields Point, past the Hurricane Barrier to India Point Park, and across the Seekonk River to East Providence, most places along the shoreline reflect a more hopeful sense of emergence — decades of abuse and neglect, finally giving way to a brighter future. It’s not hard to see that challenges remain — aged pilings clutter the shallow waters, invasive reeds catch litter and scum along the edges, shoreline erosion exposes buried coal and debris from former landfills. But it’s also easy to see a definite and growing leading edge of change: families fishing along the shore, kids playing soccer, upgrades at Bold Point Park, more fish and birds. The developers of Tockwotton on the Waterfront, a senior living facility that opened in 2013, clearly saw the upper bay site as an asset. And several more residential and commercial developments are in the works for the East Providence shore, all of them including enhanced public access to the bay.

The waterfront park across from the carousel at Crescent Park got an upgrade a few years ago, opening up the bay views and providing stairs down to the beach. The coastline continues along Narragansett Terrace and Bullocks Cove, into West Barrington, with an abundance of public-access areas along the East Bay Bike Path, plus lots of small neighborhood parks and trails hidden far from the main roads. And continuing the journey, the road takes us to Nayatt Point, the eastern side of the upper bay’s terminus, looking straight across the bay to Conimicut Light and the people’s beach just beyond it.

Here, at the edge of the upper bay, it’s hard not to feel like Jay Gatsby in reverse. Nayatt Point, in an upscale Barrington neighborhood, overflows with plush manicured lawns, sprawling trophy homes, enclosed swimming pools and private beaches. Looking out across the waves to Conimicut Point, with its quiet, free, public shore lapped by the same clear clean waters, the green light of a brighter future that eluded Gatsby now seems within our grasp.

 

Dirty Water

The landmark federal Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972, boils down to this: All the nation’s waters should be fishable and swimmable. “The act was a set of laws to address all the sources of pollution so that whenever possible, the nation’s waters would achieve the fishable-swimmable goal,” says Angelo Liberti, chief of surface water protection at DEM’s Office of Water Resources. Initial efforts targeted point-sources of pollution, such as municipal wastewater treatment plants and industrial waste streams.

Implementation of the CWA has evolved to focus on additional sources of pollution and to require higher levels of treatment. Reductions have been mandated for nitrogen and other nutrients, which stimulate algae to grow and deplete oxygen in the water. Stormwater effluents now are more closely regulated. The law was written to enable that kind of evolution, Liberti says. “As new research becomes available, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for coming up with guidelines for safe levels of pollutants, and require that states implement those standards,” he says. “They have the legal framework they need, under the Clean Water Act. You have this really good framework to work with, and you just have to keep it moving forward as new issues come up.”

The progress in Rhode Island toward clean water owes a lot to this federal law. “Seeing urban rivers and the beaches and coves of the upper bay rediscovered as natural assets for wildlife and people to enjoy is one of the great successes of the Clean Water Act,” says Janet Coit, director of the state DEM, the result, she adds, of efforts by the DEM, advocacy groups and others. The job isn’t done yet, though, she says. “More work lies ahead to reduce inputs of bacteria, nutrients and other pollutants.”

The landmark federal Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972, boils down to this: All the nation’s waters should be fishable and swimmable. “The act was a set of laws to address all the sources of pollution so that whenever possible, the nation’s waters would achieve the fishable-swimmable goal,” says Angelo Liberti, chief of surface water protection at DEM’s Office of Water Resources. Initial efforts targeted point-sources of pollution, such as municipal wastewater treatment plants and industrial waste streams.

Implementation of the CWA has evolved to focus on additional sources of pollution and to require higher levels of treatment. Reductions have been mandated for nitrogen and other nutrients, which stimulate algae to grow and deplete oxygen in the water. Stormwater effluents now are more closely regulated. The law was written to enable that kind of evolution, Liberti says. “As new research becomes available, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for coming up with guidelines for safe levels of pollutants, and require that states implement those standards,” he says. “They have the legal framework they need, under the Clean Water Act. You have this really good framework to work with, and you just have to keep it moving forward as new issues come up.”

The progress in Rhode Island toward clean water owes a lot to this federal law. “Seeing urban rivers and the beaches and coves of the upper bay rediscovered as natural assets for wildlife and people to enjoy is one of the great successes of the Clean Water Act,” says Janet Coit, director of the state DEM, the result, she adds, of efforts by the DEM, advocacy groups and others. The job isn’t done yet, though, she says. “More work lies ahead to reduce inputs of bacteria, nutrients and other pollutants.”

 

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