Clean water is important to people who live in coastal communities as well as to those who flock to the shores of Narragansett Bay. What could be more basic to our way of life and our economy?

On Aquidneck Island, untreated wastewater, failed septic systems and polluted runoff mean regular beach and shellfish bed closures. Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth residents are in the midst of a crisis. Solutions – some costly – have been the subject of heated debate. One thing is for certain, however: Time is running out.

The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has gathered repeated evidence of failing septic systems, illicit connections, illegal discharges and contaminated groundwater.

Five of the 16 Aquidneck Island bathing beaches tested by the Rhode Island Department of Health have had numerous swimming closures. Swimming has been closed in Island Park for so long the Department of Health no longer tests the water there. These closures are based on DEM evidence of human sewage in storm drain outflow pipes and groundwater. Some of these storm drains flow directly onto area beaches.

Here’s a sobering fact: Shellfish harvesting is typically closed in areas where there is evidence of more than 14 colonies of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. Parts of The Cove and the Sakonnet River in Island Park have been closed to shellfishing since 1988, when fecal coliform bacteria levels were found to exceed 23,000 colonies per 100 milliliters of water.

Beach closures are based on levels of the bacteria enterococci, a subgroup of the fecal bacteria and a valuable indicator for determining the extent of fecal contamination. A beach is closed to swimming if the geometric mean of water samples exceeds 104 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of beach water.

And this is worse: Because Health Department tests take 24 hours to complete, beaches are generally not closed until the day after tests are taken. This delay leaves beachgoers vulnerable to illness. Plus, bathing beaches are only tested from Memorial Day to Labor Day, leaving surfers and other recreational users vulnerable during the early spring and autumn seasons. Illnesses include mild to severe gastrointestinitis, inner ear infections and other symptoms.

These closures have a significant economic impact on each town, with lost revenue from parking and other amenities at the beach, as well as a general loss of patronage to area businesses. In Portsmouth, where swimming has been closed for years, there could be significant economic gains to area businesses from a renewed interest in recreational use of the coastline. The economic loss due to shellfish bed closures adds to the overall loss to the community.

Beach closures hurt the economy and discourage tourism. Who wants to travel to Rhode Island if the word going around is that beaches are open or closed on a day-to-day basis? And, as many people know, it’s hard to enjoy the “safe” beach if you are downwind from the closed beach. People think twice about coming back, and word-of-mouth advertising can turn toxic.

Property owners will be among the big winners if we work together. If we solve this problem, the tension of uncertainty goes away — we’ll relieve future legal concerns and improve property values.

We see (and smell) the problem. Now what do we do?

Already, well-meaning people in all three Island communities have made moves to improve water quality.

But the hardest decisions and longer term goals remain unaddressed. Save The Bay believes that time is running out on reaching a solution. Aquidneck Island communities need to work together on a plan. Failure to do so could result in costly legal battles and further delays.

Find the common denominator. Closed beaches and concerns about safe drinking water hurt property values. Homeowners can’t say, “I don’t fish, I don’t swim, I’m not affected.”

Make it fair and affordable. Investment must be made in wastewater treatment and stormwater management, and it should be shared equitably. Homeowners who already have invested in septic upgrades need to be treated fairly. Financing must be available to make the cost of sewer hookups easier for homeowners to absorb.

Address the growth issue. Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport need to address citizen concerns that sewer improvements will result in unwanted development. Growth, redevelopment and protected space must remain in suitable balance.

Face reality. Government, businesses and residents all must stop thinking there is a no-cost, no-growth, no-tax remedy or a take-no-action alternative. And it is critical to keep in mind that until we have an approved facilities plan, we can’t get started on seeking funding from sources other than local rate-payers.

Focus on the positive. Island beaches and water supplies can be clean again. There is a great example in Providence, where the Fields Point Sewage Treatment Plant was once practically non-functioning. The Providence River and large parts of the upper Bay were so contaminated they were a public health hazard. Boaters dodged sickening balls of untreated sewage and sailors feared the dangers of making contact with the water. Fishermen stayed far away.

Today, thanks to wastewater infrastructure improvements and better stormwater management, the area has become a safe and popular recreational area and home to some of the best striped bass fishing in Narragansett Bay.

The effort was well worth it, and the results can be made to last for generations. Cleaner water for Aquidneck Island is a goal we all must share.