URI, Dept. of Health assessing drinking water supplies to help prevent future contamination

URI, Dept. of Health assessing drinking water supplies
to help prevent future contamination
Volunteer-driven program tries to foresee problems before they arise

KINGSTON, R.I. — November 20, 2001 — The University of Rhode Island’s Cooperative Extension and the Rhode Island Department of Health are in the midst of a three-year project to assess threats to public drinking water supplies. This effort is designed to help local communities foresee and prevent contaminated drinking water like Pascoag residents and businesses are now experiencing.

“Almost any human land use has the potential to contaminate a well, so it’s important that we assess land use around public drinking water supplies. Of course we can’t foresee every eventuality, but we can try to identify the most important threats,” said Clay Commons, coordinator of the Department of Health’s Source Water Assessment Program (SWAP). “For each water supply we need to identify what the principal threats are to water quality. This information is provided to water suppliers, municipalities and citizens to enable them to take action to protect their drinking water.”

SWAP uses local residents and URI and health department professionals to identify sources of potential pollutants and evaluate the likelihood that those activities will affect the drinking water supply.

“Rhode Island is the only state that involves the public in the assessments from the very beginning of the process and works so closely with local officials,” explained Lorraine Joubert, research associate in URI’s Cooperative Extension. “By involving the communities in the assessment process, they are much more motivated to take action once the results are complete.”

To conduct a source water assessment, trained volunteers begin with 1995 Geographic Information System (GIS) maps that indicate the location of each community’s drinking water sources. The volunteers then travel the area and update any changes to land use patterns in the vicinity. For instance, if land that was once agricultural has been developed for residential or commercial use, that information is noted. High-risk activities that could be potential pollution sources — like gas stations, farms, golf courses, factories and dry cleaners – are also noted.

Once the information has been collected, maps are updated and a series of meetings is held with local planners, council members, conservation commission members, land trusts and residents.

“The goal of these meetings is to get people to recognize problem areas and talk about water quality issues,” said Joubert. “We talk about places where there are high intensity land uses and we map out hot spots, those places where there is potential for pollutants to move into the water supply.”

The final assessment report also identifies which town wells may be at greatest risk, the likely sources of pollutants, any history of contamination at each well, and future concerns that may arise based on predicted future development. Each well then receives an overall risk rating.
“It’s up to the communities to take the next steps, but we can assist with follow-up work to help take protective measures,” Joubert said.

Steps communities might take based on the assessments include homeowner workshops on how to prevent pollution at home, education campaigns for local businesses, inventories of high-risk sites, and enactment of local ordinances to better protect water supplies.

Several communities have already taken steps based on the preliminary results of their source water assessments. The Aquidneck Island Land Trust, for instance, is using the information to prioritize land acquisition plans. Jamestown is developing a wastewater management plan and an ordinance to address septic system maintenance. Burrillville has drafted an ordinance to expand its groundwater protection. Based on the South Kingstown assessment, URI has proposed to install a permeable pavement parking lot at its new Convocation Center to reduce pavement run-off.

The Source Water Assessment Program was mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996 and administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Rhode Island assessments began in 2000 and will be completed in 2003. The Department of Health is conducting assessments of the more than 400 small wellheads in the state, while URI is focusing on the major drinking water supply wells and surface water reservoirs that supply water to 75% of the state’s residents.

“We wanted URI involved because it has a lot of expertise in hydrogeology, land use studies and all kinds of other environmental questions,” said Commons. “It makes good sense for the state to use the resources available at the University.”

The assessment of the Tiverton and Little Compton water supply is just under way, while the Westerly, Bristol and Woonsocket water supplies and the Scituate Reservoir assessments will be conducted in 2002. Assessments nearing completion include those in Aquidneck Island, Burrillville, Charlestown, Cumberland, Jamestown, Kent County, North Kingstown, Pawtucket, and South Kingstown.

For Information: Arthur Gold 874-2093, Todd McLeish 874-7892