2010-08-26 / Front Page

Shores water quality on tap for testing

By Phil Zahodiakin

Jamestown is about to launch a voluntary testing program to measure nitrate levels in the well water drawn by homeowners in the Shores area, which does not have municipal water service.

The sampling, which will be free of charge, is not a response to any known problem. Rather, it’s intended to find out if problems exist, and whether nitrate levels have changed since 1997 – the last time the Shores’ water was tested programmatically.

Nitrates are a common groundwater pollutant in residential areas – particularly in subdivisions as heavily developed as the Shores. The principal sources of nitrates and nitrate precursors in residential areas are fertilizers and septic systems.

Nitrates are not toxic in small amounts; however, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that infants are vulnerable to serious health effects if they consume nitrates in amounts higher than the maximum, 10 milligram-perliter level that the agency allows in drinking water.

The 1997 testing, which detected nitrate levels as high as 8.0 milligrams per liter, was led by the University of Rhode Island. This year, a pair of Jamestown employees – Environmental Scientist Justin Jobin and Town Engineer Mike Gray – will draw the samples.

The samples will be sent for analysis to the Water Quality Division of the Health Department, which will mail the results to homeowners. The mailings will include educational materials about nitrates, in general, and any potential “next steps” – such as additional filtration – that homeowners may pursue if the testing has detected high nitrate levels.

Jobin told the Press that high detection levels will not trigger any mandatory response by homeowners. In fact, any remedial response “is entirely up to the homeowners because Jamestown does not have a private well ordinance,” he added. “The testing is only intended to make people aware of any nitrate traces in their water.”

In his most recent report to the Town Council, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said that he expected the program to cost upwards of $15,000. However, that estimate has since decreased to $4,200 – and “we have been advised that [the Dept. of Environmental Management] is going to cover the entire cost,” Keiser told the Press.

Originally, the town envisioned testing for all of the substances (naturally occurring or otherwise) targeted in the 1997 study. However, after meeting with DEM, URI and DOH scientists, “we all agreed that we didn’t need to sample for anything other than nitrates at this point,” Jobin said.

It was this consensus that reduced the overall cost of the program to approximately $4,000, which is based on the number of homeowners (140) who have signed up for testing, and a testing rate of $14 per sample – with two samples to be drawn and tested for each well.

Jamestown, however, may pay for a subsequent URI evaluation of the results.

“I don’t think DEM would pick up that cost because they’re already paying for all the sampling,” Jobin said.

Keiser added, “I think that [paying for the URI evaluation] would be appropriate support for the project by the town.”

The URI evaluation will enable Jamestown to look for trends, progress or declines in the Shores’ water quality. In its report on the 1997 testing, URI concluded that “the water quality of the Jamestown Shores has been adversely affected by high housing density. This has been shown from high average nitrate concentrations from septic effluent and fertilizer sources.”

In response to the URI findings, the town adopted its High Groundwater Table Ordinance and Wastewater Management Ordinance, which apply only to the Shores and a portion of the North End.

The groundwater regulation, which affects any lot where the groundwater table is less than 12 inches below the surface, limits the percentage of impervious areas on affected lots and requires denitrification technology in newly installed septic systems, among other provisions.

The wastewater management program requires homeowners to have their septic systems inspected every three years.

Jobin pointed out that the water sampling will allow the town to see if the ordinances – and the replacement of older septic systems with more advanced systems – have affected the nitrate levels measured in 1997.

“There’s been a lot of development in the Shores since 1997,” Jobin said, “but many of the septic systems have been replaced with higher-performing, advanced treatment systems.”

Some of the septic systems have been replaced because they were failing; others were replaced because, as Jobin pointed out, “anyone wanting to increase the ‘footprint’ of their homes in high groundwater lots has had to go before the Planning Board to demonstrate that the [proposed septic systems or system expansions] would meet the new requirements” issued by the town and DEM.

DEM issued groundwater protection regulations specific to Jamestown Shores in response to 2006 legislation requiring the dept. to evaluate the effects of its regulatory decisions. The Cumulative Impacts bill was introduced by Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed (D) because of concerns about the Shores’ groundwater.

“DEM modified its regulations in such a way that they have issued outright denials for new septic systems in areas of high groundwater, whereas, previously, they issued those decisions on a caseby case basis,” Keiser said. “The other change was [septic system] separation from the well, which now triggers an automatic denial if a proposed septic system is less than 85 feet from a well – either the homeowner’s well or a neighbor’s well.

“The water testing we’re planning,” Keiser added, “will advance the goals of the more rigorous DEM regulations by allowing the dept. to determine whether or not additional fine tuning is necessary.”

In early September, the town will send out letters thanking homeowners for their decision to participate in the sampling program. The letters will include a survey asking some basic questions about their wells, and there will be a phone number to call for scheduling appointments – which will be scheduled over a two- to four-week period.

“The schedule,” Jobin said, “will depend on how many samples the DOH lab can handle at a time, and we’re still looking into that. But the goal is to start sampling towards the end of September and wrap up in mid-October. It will take three to four weeks to get the results from DOH, which the homeowners will be advised to call if they have questions about their results.

“Education and outreach will continue until late spring,” Jobin added, pointing out that “we may then do another round of sampling, and those results will come in sometime in June. At that point, all the results will be sent to URI for analysis, and, hopefully in fall of 2011, DEM, URI and DOH will have recommendations that they can present to the Town Council.”

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