Different types of water pollution

Chemicals and Metals in The Bay

Chemicals and metals have been dumped into Narragansett Bay since the Industrial Revolution began on the Blackstone River.

Pollution in the bay
Toxic Pollution

Sediments in the Bay and its rivers, especially in the Providence and Fall River areas, are laced with pollution from decades of direct industrial discharges. Great progress has been made by the Narragansett Bay Commission and other wastewater treatment plants in reducing the amount of toxins being dumped into the Bay. Even today, however, wastewater treatment plants discharge everyday products such as pharmaceuticals, mercury, lead, zinc, copper, and other “heavy metals” into the Bay.

Adding to the mix, stormwater picks up gasoline, grease, and oil from paved surfaces and dumps them into the Bay. Chemicals from wastewater and stormwater wind up in Bay sediments and in the food chain, especially bottom fish and shellfish. 

Sewage closes beaches and shellfish beds

Although sewage treatment plants and properly functioning septic systems help keep waters clean, swimming beaches and shellfish beds are still polluted by cesspools, stormwater runoff, and combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

To protect public health, state agencies are required to close swimming beaches and shellfish beds when sewage pollution levels spike.


Rhode Island’s coastal beaches are one of our state’s greatest natural resources. Currently, the state has 124 licensed bathing facilities (69 of which are marine facilities) along about 400 miles of Narragansett Bay and Atlantic Ocean coastal waters.

Beach Closed sign
Beach Closed!!the state’s beach water quality program. Presently the “beach season” runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Federal funding from the BEACH Act of 2000 fully supports DOH’s Beach Monitoring Program.

The Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) is responsible for monitoring and managing

Shellfish Beds

Narragansett Bay has an abundance of shellfish that are harvested commercially and recreationally. Clams, mussels, and oysters are popular in area restaurants. When heavy rains hit Narragansett Bay, shellfish beds are often closed because bacteria in sewage from wastewater system overflows, cesspools, and animal waste – which is in stormwater runoff – makes them unsafe to eat.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) issues notices of shellfish closures in the Ocean State. The economic impact of shellfish bed closures is felt by commercial shell fishermen, seafood dealers and restaurants, and tourism industries.http://www.savebay.org/image/what-we-do/sewage_pollution_main_image.jpg

Excessive Nutrients Harm the Bay

Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that enter Narragansett Bay from wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, cesspools, and stormwater pollution. While nutrients are an essential part of the Narragansett Bay ecosystem, large amounts of nutrients can be “too much of a good thing.”

Nutrient Pollution
Nutrient Pollution

Here’s why

Excessive nutrients cause algae to grow rapidly. The algae decomposes and uses a lot of oxygen in the process. This deprives fish and shellfish of the oxygen they need to live. These “low oxygen” or “hypoxic” events can cause fish kills.

Nutrient pollution causes the clouding of Bay waters, robbing eelgrass of the sunlight it needs to grow. It also can create large mats of sea lettuce and phytoplanktin, which can cause diseases in fish, shellfish, and people.

Large mats of seaweed can grow to several feet deep. When they wash up on shore, the stench of the decaying seaweed makes for unpleasant beaches. Waters under the thick algae mats are often very low in oxygen.

Under certain conditions – such as when rains, winds, heat, tides, algae, sea lettuce, and nutrients combine – oxygen is literally taken out of the water. We may not have much control over the weather elements, but we can reduce nitrogen by upgrading wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, replacing cesspools with septic systems, and controlling stormwater pollution. Investments by homeowners, businesses, cities and towns, and state government are essential to managing the nutrients that enter Narragansett Bay.

Polluted Runoff Harms the Bay

When it rains, polluted water from parking lots, streets, highways, lawns and farms is dumped into the Bay. Animal waste, oil, grease, gasoline, fertilizer, garbage and sand cloud the waters of the Bay and rivers.

storm water runoff
Storm water runoff

Stormwater also carries sewage pollution from cesspools and combined sewer systems, causing the closure of swimming beaches and shellfish beds. It also overloads the Bay with nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus – that cause oxygen levels to drop. In extreme conditions, this can cause fish and shellfish die-offs.

When not properly managed, stormwater can cause major flooding events that disrupt people’s lives and businesses.

Reducing stormwater pollution is complicated. The greatest challenges are raising awareness of homeowners, business owners, and municipal and state governments who all have roles to play. Cities and towns own stormwater collection systems with storm drains and pipes that require maintenance, repair, and upgrades. Commercial areas, such as malls and big box stores, can re-engineer and landscape their parking lots to capture stormwater and allow it to do what it does naturally: seep into the ground. Rain gardens can be developed by schools, stores, and homeowners to accomplish the same goal.

Save The Bay is advocating action on stormwater runoff by:

  • Urging cities and towns to ramp up stormwater management programs through projects and financing
  • Providing technical support for municipalities on stormwater control projects.
  • Working with students and community groups on rain garden projects that absorb polluted runoff
  • Promoting state financial support for cities and towns, including low cost financing, grants, and technical assistance
  • Urging the Rhode Island General Assembly to pass legislation to phase-out cesspools statewide
  • Educating students at all levels about the causes of stormwater pollution and steps that individuals can take to reduce it.

Wastewater Treatment and Disposal

Wastewater is the water from toilets, sinks, and showers. It is also water from businesses and restaurants. It travels through pipes and is “treated” before being discharged into Narragansett Bay.

Wastewater Management

How it is treated

  1. Municipal or regional wastewater facilities remove or reduce pollution before discharging the treated wastewater through a pipe into the Bay or local rivers. Wastewater treatment facilities are required to remove most of the bacteria, metals, and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus).
  2. Septic systems are “on site” facilities that provide treatment of wastewater from homes and businesses that aren’t served by large, central wastewater treatment facilities.

The cesspool problem

In addition, more than 25,000 Rhode Island homes use cesspools, which are basically lined holes in the ground that do not adequately remove bacteria or nutrients from household wastewater. Cesspools contaminate groundwater, drinking water, and coastal areas. Save The Bay has pressed for the removal of cesspools through phase-out legislation (2013).

Wastewater treatment facility upgrades

For decades, Save The Bay has advocated for the construction and upgrade of wastewater treatment plants to reduce bacteria and nutrient pollution in Narragansett Bay. There are 35 publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities that discharge into the Narragansett Bay watershed and other Rhode Island waters. Nineteen of these lie within Rhode Island borders with the remaining 16 in Massachusetts. The four largest plants are the Narragansett Bay Commission facilities at Fields Point (Providence) and Bucklin Point (East Providence), the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District (UBWPAD) facility in Worcester, MA, and the Brockton Advanced Water Reclamation Facility in Brockton, MA.

Clean Water Act of 1972

The enactment of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 empowered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with regulating wastewater pollution. In 1982, in the midst of an onslaught of toxic materials coming from sewage treatment, Save The Bay published “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” to focus attention on the still large amounts of suspended solids, chlorine and toxic metals coming from wastewater treatment plants.