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July 31, 2013

Save The Bay Sounds Call for Action on Beach Closures

Over 100 beach closure days in first half of summer

WARWICK, R.I. – Save The Bay today called on Rhode Islanders to encourage their elected officials to take action to stem the tide of beach closures. The number of closures in the first half of the 2013 summer season is at a near record high, with the total closure days on pace to more than triple the number in 2012. 

Standing near the seawall at Oakland Beach in Warwick, Narragansett Baykeeper Tom Kutcher sounded the alarm. 

“This beautiful beach has been closed as often as it’s been open this year due to bacterial contamination,” said Kutcher. “And it’s not just this beach that’s had problems. We’ve had beach closures this year in every corner of the Bay.”

Pointing out that it’s not about the rain, but rather what the rainfall carries into the Bay, Kutcher spoke of the lawn chemicals, automotive fluids, and pet waste that gets rinsed from the earth and eventually into Narragansett Bay. 

“We have stormwater pipes discharging this polluted soup directly onto many of our beaches,” said Kutcher, pointing toward the Bay. “Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?”

Kutcher then went on to discuss failing septic systems contaminating the groundwater with sewage. 

“Worst offenders are cesspools, which are simply holes in the ground that often directly feed into the groundwater system,” continued Kutcher. “Like surface water, this contaminated groundwater flows downhill to the Bay. And this is basically raw sewage.”

As of the morning of July 31, 2013, there have been 109 beach closure days in Rhode Island. Two beach closure days have been attributed to fecal contamination of Spring Lake in Burrillville by an unknown person. These two closure days are not recognized by Save The Bay as being caused by stormwater runoff. 

The Rhode Island Department of Health (HEALTH) tests water samples from licensed beaches Monday through Friday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. When bacteria levels of any licensed beach reach a predetermined threshold, HEALTH recommends that the beach be closed to swimming. One hundred seven beach closure days have been attributed to 22 licensed beaches located throughout the Narragansett Bay region and along the state’s south coast. Oakland Beach in Warwick has suffered the most closures of any beach in Rhode Island: 27 days since Memorial Day.

“Beach closures are bad for people, but the Bay ecosystem suffers from our inaction, too,” said Kutcher. “The same contaminated runoff and groundwater that carry the bacteria that can make us sick also carry excessive nutrients that can contribute to algae blooms and low oxygen events that can kill fish and shellfish. Right here in Greenwich Bay, almost exactly 10 years ago, we saw a massive die-off of fish from low oxygen.” 

The 2003 fish kill prompted action by the General Assembly and municipalities. The Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) tunnel constructed underneath Providence has had significant, positive effects Bay-wide as most of the city’s stormwater is captured and treated by the Narragansett Bay Commission. However, the Bay has been experiencing low-oxygen as severe as the event that caused the 2003 fish kill. 

“Clearly, more work needs to be done at the local level to address our outdated and failing systems,” said Kutcher. “Let’s not wait for the fish to die.” 

Before introducing Jonathan Stone, Save The Bay’s executive director, the Baykeeper ended his talk with a statement from the heart.

“Our beautiful Bay, the pride of our state, is in crisis now,” said Kutcher emphatically. “How could we possibly choose not to address that?”

Stone stepped up to the lectern and drove home the need for action to return the Bay to a healthy state.

“We can fix the problem of local polluted run-off,” said Stone. “At a state level, Rhode Island voters have overwhelmingly approved investments in upgrading our wastewater treatment plants. The Providence Combined Sewer Overflow system is a prime example.”

Beach closures associated with wastewater treatment plant overflows have declined dramatically since 2009 after the CSO tunnel was near completed. The closures that Rhode Island is seeing this summer are most likely associated with local pollution such as leaking cesspools and stormwater runoff.

“This problem can be solved,” continued Stone. “Look at Bristol, a town that used to experience repeated beach closures at their town beach. Bristol has had no beach closures this summer.”

The Town of Bristol has invested in the capture and treatment of polluted run-off and wastewater from failed septic systems through rain gardens, vegetative swales, and the relocation of a parking lot. 

To return Narragansett Bay to a healthy state, Save The Bay is calling for:

  • Cities and towns to ramp up stormwater management programs;
  • The State of Rhode Island to support municipalities through grants, incentives, low cost financing, and technical assistance;
  • The General Assembly to pass a cesspool phaseout law that eliminates cesspools statewide.

About Save The Bay

Founded in 1970, Save The Bay is a nonprofit member organization working to protect, restore and explore Narragansett Bay and its watershed. Save The Bay believes the Bay’s future depends on tomorrow’s leaders understanding how important the Bay is to our economy, environment and quality of life. The organization offers education programs to schools, community groups and the general public; protects Narragansett Bay by advocating for Bay-friendly legislation, reviewing permits and raising public awareness; and restores the Bay to full health through its extensive habitat restoration program.