URI’s four water outreach programs—all headed by dedicated URI alumni—work together to keep the state’s waterways and watersheds clean and healthy. Together, they comprise a quiet but mighty force that helps Rhode Island care for what is arguably its most precious resource: water.
By Bill Ibelle
Look at any map of Rhode Island and you’ll realize that we visualize our state as a network of paved pathways that carry us to work, the beach, the mall, and to see friends. But beneath this web of pavement, the natural world has its own system of arteries and capillaries, many of them so tiny they go unnoticed. Yet this network is the lifeblood of our planet—the natural filtration system that purifies our water so we can drink, boat, swim, and simply admire its beauty.
“Waterways are all interconnected, so we can’t ignore any part of the system.”
—Elizabeth Herron, ’88 M.A. ’04, director, Watershed Watch
It’s often said that water is the new oil—a resource that will determine which nations thrive and which crumble. This underscores why it’s so important for Rhode Island to preserve the health of its water supply.
And this is exactly what the University of Rhode Island is doing through a cluster of four water outreach programs designed to educate decision-makers, engage the public, and create a detailed database to serve as the foundation for cutting-edge research. To create that database, Elizabeth Herron ’88, M.A. ’04, has recruited an army of more than 350 citizen volunteers who test water quality at more than 220 locations.
“The state can’t possibly monitor all of that, so we need volunteers to get the job done,” says Herron, director of URI’s Watershed Watch.
Meanwhile, URI students perform the laboratory analysis on the test samples collected by citizen volunteers.
“Our students gain a ton of lab experience and put into practice all of the things they’re learning in the classroom,” says Herron. “After graduation, many of them go on to work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Nature Conservancy, and other environmental organizations.”
The database created by Watershed Watch stretches back to 1988 and serves as the basis for water quality restoration plans issued by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
“They are the primary source of data in Rhode Island for determining whether a water body is impaired,” says Katie DeGoosh, a principal environmental scientist at DEM.
In 2002, Watershed Watch data identified elevated fecal coliform levels in Greenwich Cove, which flows into the shellfishing grounds of Greenwich Bay. Additional testing traced the pollution to its sources and was the basis for a DEM cleanup plan that installed 23 catch basins throughout the watershed to reduce road runoff. The plan also eliminated a host of failing septic systems by connecting the offending homes and businesses to the town sewer system. As a result, water quality in the bay improved dramatically, and in 2022, the state reopened a portion of Greenwich Bay for shellfishing for the first time in 20 years.
You never know what you’re going to find when you follow testing to the source of water pollution. It can be as egregious as an untreated sewer outflow or as benign as an upstream beaver dam. In the early days of Watershed Watch, bacteria counts spiked in Tiogue Lake in Coventry. The villain? A friendly bread truck that was dropping off bags of day-old bread on the causeway for people to feed the ducks and geese. The birds were adorable, but they pooped so much the lake had to be closed.
Around the same time, Watershed Watch testers encountered a curious phenomenon at Yawgoo Pond in South Kingstown. As an isolated pond surrounded by forest and swampland, it should have been an ideal water-purifying environment. Yet the pond suffered from repeated blue-green algae blooms. Not only did this turn the pond the color of pea soup, but it also signaled the presence of toxic cyanobacteria, which can kill dogs and cause nausea, vomiting, rashes, and liver damage in humans.
“Most of us don’t think about where our water comes from, let alone where it goes.”
—Alissa Cox ’10, M.S. ’13, Ph.D. ’20, director, Onsite Wastewater Resource Center
“Testing showed that the algae bloom was caused by a phosphorous overload, which is usually caused by fertilizers,” says Art Gold, founder of Watershed Watch. “But there was no agriculture near the pond, so it wasn’t from the turf farms.”
Testers were able to trace the phosphorous to one of three tiny brooks that fed the pond, then follow the pollution upstream and through a swamp to an illicit shellfish processing plant.
“The state cleaned up the site and the pond rebounded,” says Gold, a professor emeritus of natural resources sciences at URI.
This is a classic example of how the capillaries of our water network—the unnoticed swamps and streamlets—can cause problems in major bodies of water. “Waterways are all interconnected, so we can’t ignore any part of the system,” says Herron.
More recently, Almy Pond in Newport has suffered a series of blue-green algae blooms each summer. Although no one swims in the pond or drinks its water, it sits right behind Newport’s world-famous Cliff Walk and drains into the exclusive Bailey’s Beach, which suffers from annual closures due to high bacteria counts.
Residents have responded by installing buoys filled with biochar, a highly absorbent charcoal designed to pull phosphorous out of the water.
Across the state in Tiverton, Stafford Pond was closed in 2020 for a similar type of algae bloom. That community responded by treating the lake with aluminum sulfate, which binds to the phosphorous deposits in bottom sediment, making it impossible for cyanobacteria to feed on it.
Who’s the Culprit?
So where does all this lake-killing phosphorous and nitrogen come from?
You. Me. All of us.
It’s in the fertilizer we use on our lawns, pet droppings we fail to pick up, the waste from imperfect septic systems, and motor oil and exhaust metals that run off our driveways and roads when it rains.
This is what’s called “nonpoint source” pollution because it can’t be traced back to a single culprit like an unregulated fish plant or a large sod farm. Most waterway pollution comes from dozens of sources that silently leach contaminants into the ground, then seep into nearby streamlets, which carry them to a river, lake, or reservoir. In more urban areas, pollutants wash down the street, into the sewers, and overflow into Narraganset Bay, closing popular beaches.
Gerry Messina, an avid surfer and treasurer of the Rhode Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, which works with Watershed Watch to sample and test saltwater sites in the state, says that testers routinely find elevated bacteria levels at three popular surfing breaks on the east and west sides of Point Judith and Second Beach in Newport.
But like many small environmental organizations, the Surfrider Foundation has neither the money nor the manpower to improve state and local environmental policies. This is where the work of the three other URI Cooperative Extension water programs comes in—one focused on septic systems, another on private wells, and a third on environmentally friendly development.
Septic: Gone, But To Where?
It’s hardly a revelation that failing septic systems are a major cause of water pollution. Fixing the problem is another matter, according to Alissa Cox, ’10, M.S. ’13, Ph.D. ’20.
As director of the Onsite Wastewater Resource Center at URI, Cox provides classroom and field training to septic system designers, installers, inspectors, and the public. Her first challenge is human nature: out of sight, out of mind.
“Most of us don’t think about where our water comes from, let alone where it goes,” says Cox. “We just assume our water is clean because this is America.”
The second challenge is financial. Cox notes that an advanced septic system typically costs upward of $25,000, which is why she’s working in partnership with the town of Charlestown to pilot a far less expensive treatment system. While most advanced systems come with a proprietary nitrogen treatment system that removes nitrogen from wastewater before it leaves this system, Cox is testing a drainfield system—developed in Ontario, Canada, and piloted on Cape Cod—that uses layers of sand and sawdust to remove nitrogen in the drainfield.
The goal is to win state regulatory approval for this innovative system design. This requires two years of testing data from 10 locations. Charlestown currently has four of these systems up and running and needs funding for the remaining six. If successful, the URI/Charlestown project could establish an affordable way to improve septic systems throughout the state.
The third challenge Cox faces is maintenance, which is a tough sell, given that septic systems live underground and are rarely noticed until the backyard starts smelling funny—which is long after pollution has plumed through the watershed.
“Even a well-designed system doesn’t work if it’s poorly maintained,” says Cox. “It’s just like your car: if you don’t change your engine oil, it’s going to seize up and that’s the end of it.”
Surprisingly, even new systems can be a problem. Some advanced systems don’t work because they were installed or designed improperly. URI researchers have discovered dozens of new advanced systems that weren’t working because the switch for the nitrogen removal mode was never turned on and others that didn’t work because of faulty software.
Wells: How Clean Is My Water?
Where there is a septic system, there is often a private well—and the two don’t always play well together. As director of URI’s Home*A*Syst program, Alyson McCann, M.S. ’89, provides education and technical assistance to the state’s 100,000 private well owners. She says that in addition to septic intrusion, there are a host of other potential contaminants: oil and salt from road runoff, bacteria from pet waste or dead animals, lead from old pipes, fertilizer from lawns and agriculture, and industrial waste.
“We can’t move the road or the entire septic system, but we can test regularly,” says McCann, noting that it costs only $100 to test your well annually and she will interpret the results for free.
“We can’t move the road or the entire septic system, but we can test regularly.”
—Alyson McCann, M.S. ’89, director, Home*A*Syst
Sometimes contamination is catastrophic. In 2001 the water supply for most of Burrillville, including the reservoir and private wells, was contaminated by MTBE, a toxic gasoline additive. Testing traced the contamination back to the Main Street Mobil station, where an underground storage tank had ruptured; the toxin had leaked into the groundwater and spread to the reservoir and private wells.
The spill, which was the biggest in Rhode Island history, was initially detected when a resident tested his private well. The spill shut down the entire district’s water supply, required a multiyear cleanup, and culminated in a civil suit in which Exxon Mobil paid the town $7 million.
This, of course, is an extreme example. In general, the drinking water quality in Rhode Island is quite good, according to McCann, and most problems can be resolved with relatively simple treatments such as chlorine shock for bacteria and a variety of water filters for other pollutants.
“We provide periodic training sessions throughout the state on what to test for, how to test, what the results mean, and how to treat various problems,” says McCann.
Development: A Better Way
Development doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Both new development and modifications to existing development can be done in an environmentally sound manner, according to Lorraine Joubert ’77, M.S. ’91.
As director of URI’s Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO) program, Joubert teaches city and town officials about these practices and helps them craft ordinances that ensure their implementation. Some improvements are relatively simple. For example, parking lots typically pave over large natural areas including tiny depressions and streamlets that serve as the capillaries of our natural water system. Joubert advocates for ordinances that require new parking lots to be dotted with small green spaces where water can gather and filter into the soil rather than running off into sewers. Similar improvements can be made to existing parking lots.
“Communities along the coast are more likely to adopt conservation development because land values depend so much on water quality.”
—Lorraine Joubert ’77, M.S. ’91, director, Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials
As for roadways, we can dig swales and natural catch basins along the sides that will filter runoff through the soil, rather than channel all those contaminants into sewers.
Other improvements are more complicated but equally doable. Charlestown recently enacted a “conservation development” zoning ordinance, which reconceives traditional lots. Using the same amount of land, it groups houses in a village-like cluster, leaving the rest of the land in its natural state. These patches of forest, wetlands, and fields act as natural filtration systems to protect groundwater, the town’s only source of drinking water.
Based on results in other communities, Charlestown officials believe conservation development will increase property values by preserving the natural beauty of the area and may even allow homeowners in these mini-villages to share a single septic system.
“Communities along the coast are more likely to adopt conservation development because land values depend so much on water quality,” says Joubert. “It’s harder to convince communities in the northern part of the state.”
In partnership with DEM, Joubert created a detailed process—the Low Impact Development checklist—to help towns assess their current regulations. A URI graduate conducted this process with officials from the seven towns that form the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed, which has been designated a Partnership Wild and Scenic River System by the National Park Service.
“The project fit beautifully with my site-planning and wetland ecology classes,” says Hayden McDermott, M.E.S.M. ’22, who just completed a master’s degree in environmental science and management and recently landed a position with the city of Newport. “It also fits well with my career plans since I was operating as a consultant of sorts to local policymakers.”
Performing the checklist was a mammoth undertaking for McDermott, who averaged about 60 hours per town to conduct the detailed evaluation, then put on a PowerPoint presentation before each of the seven planning boards.
“I loved the Q&A after the presentation because the officials were excited about finding ways to implement these ideas,” says McDermott.
Invasive plants are another notable threat to water quality. Because they have no native predators, they can spread rapidly and ruin prized lakes and ponds for swimming, boating, and fishing. They rob the water of oxygen that fish need to survive and shade out native plants that serve as food for aquatic animals.
The two most common of these invasive plants are milfoil and fanwort, which can be found in more than 100 bodies of water in Rhode Island. Both are dense, feathery green plants that mass just below the surface. Milfoil can grow more than an inch per week and reproduce when it breaks apart, as it does easily when stirred up by boaters or swimmers.
One of the newest invasive species in the state is the water chestnut, which was first spotted by a URI graduate student in North Kingstown’s Belleville Pond. The plant has since spread to several other locations including the Blackstone River, Chapman Pond in Westerly, and Central Pond in East Providence. Like water lilies, the dense floating leaves of the water chestnut can cover the entire surface of a pond, blocking out sunlight needed by other plants and fish.
“Water chestnut is my biggest worry right now,” says DeGoosh of the DEM. “One seed in the spring can sprout 15 plants, and each plant can produce 25 seeds for the next year. So, growth can be exponential.”
One favorable trait of water chestnut is it can be eradicated before it spreads by simply pulling it up by its roots. As a result, early detection is the key to containment. This is another reason why URI’s army of water testers is so important, according to Gold.
“The government has a hard time staying committed to monitoring because it’s not sexy,” he says. “No one could afford to do this with staff, which is why DEM partners with Watershed Watch. If we don’t have those eyes on our water system, we won’t notice if it’s degrading.”