2007-05-17 / News

Residents look for Conservation Commission support on aquifer designation

By Robert Morton-Ranney

The Conservation Commission welcomed guests Ellen Winsor and Pat Bolger to their May 8 meeting. The two are seeking the commission's support for the ongoing attempt to have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designate Conanicut Island as a Sole Source Aquifer (SSA).

During discussion, commissioners shared two major concerns. First, they felt that they had not been sufficiently involved in the process to date. Commissioner Mark Baker said although he thinks water conservation is important, the commission should not support it "if we are not full participants," and not part of discussions with the EPA. Baker added that "as part of due diligence," the commission should study all the relevant documents more thoroughly, as a group. Bolger said they "would love to have" the commission in on discussions with the EPA.

Commissioner Cathy Roheim said she was supportive of the designation concept, but agreed that the Commission had not been involved enough. She would like to see the commission participate by gathering more information and perhaps be involved in the upcoming public hearing.

The commission's second concern was the severing of any linkage between the designation and current potential contamination issues, such as the location of the highway barn. A new version of the EPA petition was distributed at the meeting. Both Baker and Roheim asked whether the EPA had been informed of the rescinding of earlier documentation, in which current potential contamination issues had been mentioned, and whether there was official documentation from the EPA signaling their understanding of this change. Winsor said it could be put in writing. Bolger asked the commission to write down exactly what it would like in terms of its participation.

Commissioner Carol Trocki agreed that there should be no linkage between the designation and current issues, and that "we need documentation about who knows and agrees on what." She added that more clarity is needed as to how and through which of its boards, committees, groups the town participates. Roheim raised the question of how the designation helps with education, and all agreed that an official "label" garners attention and respect to a surprising degree.

Commission Chairman Chris Powell suggested it was premature for the commission to take a position. He noted that the original petition had been funded by the North End Concerned Citizens, and felt that the perception still exists that the whole endeavor is tied to the issue of the landfill. Powell recommended that the commission make no decision until after the site for the highway barn has been selected, so that the separation of the issues is clear.

Bolger said that given the decision making schedule in place, that could be decided by the commission's next meeting. Powell reiterated his position and added, "and actual work on the site is begun." Bolger responded, "Then we're wasting our time." He said it could be two years before soil is turned on any site.

Powell said it is going to be hard to separate the two because of the tenor of the discussions around the issue at Town Council meetings. Roheim said, "Let's see what happens at the public hearing," and added that it may clear up the issue and any public misperceptions.

Winsor said that to this point she has been the person working with the EPA, and after she gets the commissions concerns, she will get a letter from the EPA rescinding previous documentation.

In other business, Roheim attended the initial organizational meeting of the Wind Energy Committee and was told that the Conservation Commission was not invited to have an official seat, but was welcome to send an observer. Roheim said those on the new committee are well-suited to their task, but observing will be diffi- cult since their meeting schedule is identical to that of the Conservation Commission. She said she would enjoy some joint meetings with the two groups. Powell said there are definitely common issues, and he will ask the committee chair to alter their schedule to accommodate an observer.

Trocki reported that the commission has been awarded a $68,000 grant by the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to proceed with its Round Marsh Restoration Project. The total cost of the project is $90,000, and the $22,000 balance is to come from the town and can include in-kind contributions.

New ditching is to be put in place to allow salt water to flow into areas it does not currently reach. Phragmites, invasive reeds unfriendly to other vegetation, will be mulched, and a monitoring program will be instituted. The expectation is that the enduring population of phragmites will be significantly reduced, as the presence of salt water discourages their growth. This is the first saltmarsh rehabilitation project undertaken by WHIP without the use of herbicides. Trocki will meet with Town Administrator Bruce Keiser to plan the next steps. The commission thanked Trocki for all her work.

Baker presented proofs of the Trail Guide, which the commission accepted enthusiastically. Powell will check to see whether a nominal price could be charged for each, since all felt it would be seen as more valuable if a price is attached. Some 4,000 copies will be printed, and distribution should begin soon. Roheim presented a draft advertisement about Rhode Island's Farm, Forest, and Open Space Act, intended to conserve undeveloped land by reducing the tax burden of owners.

Commissioner Patrick Driscoll described some aspects of the proposed Fort Getty Master Plan, and Powell asked him to get a copy so that it could be discussed at the next meeting. Kate Smith has been appointed to a seat on the commission, but she was unable to attend because she was away on business. A review of recent dock applications prompted interest in the issue in general, and it will be placed on the agenda for a future meeting.

The Earth Day Shoreline Cleanup was a great success, and another cleanup on the commission's section of North Main Road is planned for the fall.

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