August 6, 2008

Clean Water Advocates Meet in Westerly to Take Stock of Local Efforts

By Donita Naylor, The Providence Journal, R.I.

Aug. 6--WESTERLY -- About 35 people gathered in the restored lobby of the Industrial Trust Building, the Westerly Land Trust's headquarters, to talk about water quality in the Pawcatuck watershed, roughly the southern third of the state.

The state Department of Environmental Management and Save the Bay wanted to share what they were doing and hear what others were doing.

The Wood River and Queen River flow into the Pawcatuck River, which becomes Little Narragansett Bay next to Napatree Point in Westerly. Waters from towns as far north as West Greenwich and Exeter drain into the area, as do Richmond, Hopkinton and South Kingstown.

The meeting started with a slide show by Heidi Travers of the DEM's Office of Water Resources about water quality testing and sources of nitrogen runoff.

Elizabeth A. Scott, DEM's deputy chief for water quality, said before the meeting that the state's goal is to find "where the hot spots are."

Nitrogen, which enters the watershed from sewage treatment plants, lawns, septic systems, agricultural uses, boats, and domestic and wild animals, eventually empties into Little Narragansett Bay and Block Island Sound.

Nitrogen drives the system of algae and aquatic plant growth. When algae levels are healthy, they contribute dissolved oxygen into the water, which supports other forms of life such as shellfish and young fish. But too much nitrogen causes algae to grow until it chokes itself off and, as the dying plants decompose, they remove oxygen from the water. Without dissolved oxygen, other life in the river dies.

Chris Fox, of the Wood River-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, said the group is working on restoring fish ladders in Shannock and Bradford and is looking for ways to help other organizations.

Fox said a bacteria kill downstream from the fish ladders, "could simply render some of these efforts to restore fishing [upstream] almost useless."

Jennifer S. Sternick , executive director of the Weekapaug Foundation for Conservation, detailed her group's work on about 1,000 acres of watersheds around two ponds. Volunteers are looking for more stewardship projects.

David Prescott, South County Coastkeeper for Save the Bay, spoke for the Nature Conservancy's efforts with the Salt Pond Coalition, which has done clam seeding and is considering scallop seeding.

Harvey Perry, of the Westerly Land Trust, saying that clean water helps tourism and food production, especially with the increased cost of offshore fishing, suggested that Save the Bay apply for money to connect storm water drains to the sewage system.

Scott of the DEM said the state was revising its storm water management manual.

As for pollution, she said, "We're not looking just the end of the pipe, but up from that." Some pipes, built to deliver storm water runoff directly into the ocean, were showing runoff during dry weather and testing high for bacteria.

Scott said the state has grants available for water quality and habitat restoration.

"We'd love to see some projects coming from this area." she said.

Philo Willetts, attending as a "local humble citizen," asked whether the "no boat discharge zones" were improving water quality.

"We're seeing a lot more compliance," Travers said, but no measurable improvement in water quality.


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