Residents could face early water restrictions
Residents of Jamestown are used to water restrictions. Each year between June and August the watering of lawns and gardens is banned in the town’s water district. If conditions demand, the washing of cars and other outdoor water uses join the list of prohibited activities.
This year there is new con- cern among town officials, last weekend’s rain notwithstanding, regarding the lack of precipitation that the island has received so far. According to the water department, the island gets about 11 inches of precipitation in an average year. This year, there have been only 5 inches since Jan. 1. As a result, the 60-million-gallon North Pond reservoir is 2 million gallons below capacity. The reservoir is normally full at this time of the year as a result of winter and spring precipitation.
Making matters worse is that the watershed – the wetlands surrounding the reservoir – is dry. That means instead of providing runoff to the reservoir, any new precipitation will be absorbed into the ground, which Town Engineer Mike Gray describes as a “big sponge.”
Last week Gray reported to the Water and Sewer Commission that the reservoir is currently at 58 million gallons and dropping. That means that the island is using reservoir storage for water.
“Normally we would continue to receive precipitation and we wouldn’t start dropping,” Gray said. “During the summer months the tributaries do dry up and we’re working with storage off the reservoir. Typically we aren’t in that condition until June or July. So we’re a couple of months early.”
According to Gray, the reservoir level will continue to drop depending on how much water is consumed by residents, evaporation caused by dry days, and water transfer, which occurs when the reservoir recharges groundwater. Another factor is that plants are starting to bloom in the watershed, demanding more water.
“The purpose of the dam is to have storage for those periods of the year when there is no runoff, so luckily we have storage,” Gray said. The town stores water in the 7-million-gallon South Pond.
Gray reports that the reservoir has not been this low this early in the year in the 28 years he has been here. New regulations on water use kick in when the reservoir level is 42 inches below the top of the spillway. If the water level falls to 60 inches below the top of the spillway, all outdoor water usage is banned. Additional restrictions can also be imposed by the state of Rhode Island.
Gray said the Water Resources Board is taking this matter up at the state level. “They may put some restrictions in place statewide, based on the conditions. We’re not the only ones in the state that are experiencing dry conditions.”
Gray said Jamestown would not only have to have significant rain, but a long duration of rain to recharge the watershed.
“The wetlands and the watershed are dry as well. Unless they’re saturated, we won’t receive runoff from the watershed. So the rainfall will recharge the reservoir, but we don’t receive runoff into the reservoir unless the wetlands are saturated upstream.”
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser also expressed concern over the current water level at the reservoir. “Given the very minimal precipitation that we experienced over the winter, either snowfall or rainfall, we are going into the season with a slightly less-than-full reservoir,” he said. “More importantly, the ground is not saturated as it would be at this time.”
According to Keiser, the town is facing a “double whammy” as a result of not getting the precipitation necessary to keep the reservoir at maximum level, and also having parched conditions in the watershed so that any rainfall will be absorbed into the soil and will not reach the reservoir. He added that the reservoir usually has excess water at this time of year, which is lost to the bay via the spillway.
“Given that we are working with diminished resources, the probability of having earlier restricted water use is very high,” Keiser said, meaning that the ban on car, boat or house washing, as well as other outdoor water uses, may be contemplated by officials in late June. These restrictions typically don’t come into play until early August, if at all.
“Based on where we are right now, and what a normal season would bring us, I think we’re a month to six weeks ahead of the period where we would consider imposing greater restrictions,” Keiser said.
While the Town Council did not take any action regarding the water situation at its last meeting, it was noted that according to ordinance, the council does have the power to suspend all or part of the limitations on water use in the event of an emergency. Any water restrictions that may be imposed do not apply to the island’s farms, which are outside of the town’s water district, and use well water.