2007-03-01 / Front Page

Town learns more about federal aquifer designation

By Dotti Farrington

The main goal of a federal designation of Conanicut Island as a sole source aquifer (SSA) would be to increase public awareness and efforts to protect the environment and the water, according to Douglas Heath, hydrogeologist in the Office of Ecosystem Protection of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Heath, based in the EPA's Region One office in Boston, spoke at a recent meeting of the town's Water Resource Protection Committee. He came at the invitation of town officials seeking his information about a citizen application several months ago for the aquifer designation.

Heath explained the main reason the SSA program was established in 1974 was to provide oversight of all federally-funded programs - most commonly, airports - that could impact water supplies. Because Jamestown has no plans for such programs and is not likely to have any in the future, Heath suggested, the most signifi- cant reason to get a SSA rating is to encourage public protection of the island's water resources.

Town officials are awaiting a recommendation from the water resource committee about the SSA process. They are expected to consider the aquifer at this month's meeting.

Although any individual or group of individuals may propose the SSA designation, the EPA asks that local government participate in the evaluation process, mainly by providing access to data, Heath said. For Jamestown, local coop- eration is wanted to help get relevant data from area communities about how much water, if any, they could supply to Jamestown in an emergency.

Heath emphasized that no towns would be required to provide water, only to report to what extent current conditions would allow sharing water with Jamestown.

Heath said the entire island would be reviewed for the designation of sole source aquifer, even though the island may represent more than one aquifer or categories and types of aquifers. He suggested the net effect of the structure of Jamestown's geology is that it represents a sole source aquifer, with no separate watersheds for each section of the island. He explained the island, surrounded by ocean and with no known connection to neighboring aquifers, would have no fresh water source should the Conanicut aquifer system fail.

Heath discussed salt water intrusion as a major concern. "Once started, it could have a cascading effect. It can't be stopped, and would take years to clean up," he commented.

Southern Rhode Island relies on groundwater aquifers and much of the rest of the state relies on surface reservoirs for water supply, according to state data. The EPA has assigned SSA rating to 72 communities or regional areas in the United States, with 15 in New England and three so far in the state of Rhode Island. They are the Pawcatuck River, the Hunt-Annaquatucket Pettaquamscut area and Block Island.

An SSA defines a location having a sole or principal drinking water source for at least 50 percent of the population, and that, if contaminated, would be a hazard to public health. Some 57 percent of Jamestown residents get their drinking water from private wells and 43 percent from reservoirs.

As part of the town decision on an SSA rating, councilors asked Town Administrator Bruce Keiser to review data with a consultant. Keiser said he consulted with Dr. Daniel Urish, professor emeritus of environmental engineering at the University of Rhode Island and a past consultant on town water matters. Keiser said Urish spoke about the variations in as many as three aquifers in different sections of the island. Keiser commented that the island's water supply has been stabilized through conservation.

The stabilization reflects conservation with municipal water, but has not been extended to private wells, town Conservation Commissioner Christopher Powell noted.

The SSA process

Heath said the Jamestown petition was at the second of a fivestage SSA process. When he receives letters from the town and area towns, it will commence to stage three, in which he analyzes the data collected. Stage four is a local public hearing. Stage five is an EPA decision via the regional administrator and federal endorsement, then Federal Registry notice, and accounting of any federal funding projects that could be involved.

Heath concluded with emphasis on the need for more awareness and oversight of water resources. "You never may be involved" with EPA and its SSA review for project funding, Heath restated, "but we want to encourage stewardship."

A copy of the SSA petition is available at the town library.

As part of the process, EPA is accepting letters from officials and citizens, individually or as organizations about the Conanicut Island aquifer petition. Letters may be sent to Heath at the EPA Office of Ecosystem Protection-New England, 1 Congress Street, Suite 1100, CDW, Boston, MA 02114- 2023. Information may be obtained from Heath at 617-918-1585.

Town issues

Councilor William Kelly has spoken and written against the designation. He has suggested EPA's role is an unneeded duplication of governmental oversight. He also has cited claims the SSA designations as misused by aggressive politicians and wealthy residents to prevent some projects or force them into neighborhoods less able to fight them.

Heath said that SSA is not used to block projects. A federal EPA report showed its SSA process involved approvals with no modifi- cations in 91 percent of cases, disapprovals of less than one per cent of projects, and approvals with modifications in the remainder.

Heath said he sees no disadvantages to the SSA designation. Local officials have been leery about adding a federal layer of authority over any project in general and they have been leery about the SSA option because of its initiation by a group of residents seen as controversial.

Return to top