Sole source aquifer bid gets water panel's okay
The Town Water Resource Protection Committee agreed March 22 to support the citizen petition for Sole Source Aquifer (SSA) designation if the petition removes reference to potential dangers of the aquifer.
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser requested the change to avoid the appearance of taking any action that might compromise the town's plans to close the former landfill. They committee also did not want to jeopardize the possibility of building a highway barn at or near the landfill.
Petition supporters Pat Bolger and Ellen Winsor questioned the need or strategy to dilute concerns about the dangers to the aquifer, or to dilute the importance of the designation. They specified that other threats to the island's aquifer exist, such as groundwater problems at Jamestown Shores and salt water intrusion into water supplies.
They nonetheless agreed to discuss the petition wording change with Doug Heath of Boston, a hydrogeologist and the regional coordinator of the SSA program of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Heath spoke at a committee meeting in February to explain the designation process and its significance. He said it mainly had implications for such major, federally funded projects as airports and was not likely to impact many or any projects in Jamestown. He emphasized that the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) would handle most or all project oversight and the EPA would not duplicate or interfere with DEM work. Under those circumstances, Heath explained, the main benefit of the designation is a new array of opportunities to educate residents about the aquifer and the importance of safeguarding it as the main source of water for residents.
DEM several months ago reported its support for the Jamestown petition. At that time, DEM said the designation would have no impact on activities at the town landfill and the siting of a highway garage at or near the landfill. DEM itself imposed several requirements for any landfill activity as part of its enforcement of governmental regulations and environmentally sound engineering.
Several persons at last week's meeting, including Keiser, acknowledged the DEM rulings. The town administrator continued to push for the concession about landfill plans and possible barn location as a way to ensure there can be neither misunderstanding about the designation nor any chance of conflict for councilors when considering their position about endorsing the aquifer designation.
Keiser explained further that DEM and the town take the position that landfill activities are no threat or source of pollution to the aquifer. Therefore, he said, it would be contradictory for the council to support a petition that defines the landfill as a source, or potential source of water contamination.
Councilors are awaiting the recommendation of the water resource committee before voting on the matter. Earlier this month, the Town Conservation Commission discussed similar issues and members said they would try to adopt a recommendation at their next meeting.
Water resource committee members based their 90-minute consideration of the designation on their interpretation that it had one advantage - education opportunities to protect the aquifer - and one disadvantage - possibility of delays and added costs to undergo an EPA review if any projects were to evolve.
Any individual or group may petition for the designation, but a community needs to provide certain data for EPA to act on the petition. Keiser said the costs and time to gather the required data are nominal, but could be greater if the designation leads to an EPA review of any island activity.
The petitioners and some committee members agreed that any added review should be encouraged to protect the aquifer. A few people thought the island has always protected itself well, such as during the construction of Route 138 across the island, but others recalled important state or federal roles that contributed to better environmental decisions here. There were also varied versions of how well the island has maintained efforts for public awareness about water issues.
Bolger and Winsor suggested more education is needed to counter beliefs of some islanders that the aquifer is not the principal water source, and that two or more aquifers are not interconnected.
They said some residents believe that well water quantity and quality are isolated matters and not related to possibilities of widespread water supply problems. They said the interconnectedness of private and town water supplies needs to be explained more so that better conservation of water is practiced throughout the island.
Bolger reported that on a statewide level, lawn watering systems are the biggest users of well-water sources, notably by those who see no connection between their well use and the overall aquifer supply.
Heath explained the main reason the SSA program was established in 1974 was to provide oversight of all federally-funded programs that could impact water supplies. Because Jamestown has no plans for such projects, Heath suggested, the most significant reason to get a SSA rating is to encourage public protection of the island's water resources.
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.
SSA as stewardship
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, which, 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.
Heath concluded with emphasis on the need for more awareness and oversight of water resources. "You never may be involved" with the EPA and its SSA review for project funding, Heath reiterated, "but we want to encourage stewardship."
A copy of the SSA petition is available at the town library.