2018-07-26 / Front Page

Well, well, well: Panel returns to protect water supply

BY RYAN GIBBS

A panel that began its rebirth in March 2017 technically was founded 19 years ago, proving that water problems on the island are fluid.

The water resource protection board was resurrected by the conservation commission to focus on water preservation, maintaining private wells and protecting the aquifer. The committee consists of three members: Carol Nelson-Lee and Jim Turenne, both of Buoy Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue’s Jim Hubbard.

“We just started having conversations,” Nelson-Lee said. “We decided this would be a good time to restudy the issue.”

Hubbard, a former head of the previous board, approached the town after hearing from concerned Jamestown Shores homeowners about their wells. These residents are not connected to the municipal water supply. He then solicited Turenne and Nelson-Lee to propose a revival, and the group ultimately received the town council’s blessing.

Originally established in 1999, the board’s initiative was to recommend parcels of land for the town to purchase to protect the aquifer. In February 2012, however, following the acquisition of valuable farmland, the council disbanded the protection committee in lieu of a nonvoting advisory panel.

“We didn’t really get called upon for several years,” Turenne said.

Second coming

In recent years, with wells running dry, homeowners began digging deeper, which led Nelson-Lee to form the Jamestown Water Initiative, a grassroots campaign to raise awareness about the importance of preserving groundwater. The campaign included four lectures, with topics ranging from rain gardens to droughts.

Turenne, a hydrologist, also is a former member of the 1999 protection committee. He also served with Nelson-Lee on the board of directors for the Conanicut Island Land Trust.

While the original 1999 board was its own separate committee, this new iteration continues its 2012 role as a nonvoting advisory panel under the conservation commission.

“Things have changed a lot,” Nelson-Lee said. “Home appliances use less water than they used to. It just seemed to be a good time to revisit the issue. There are so many new people on the island who have grown up on city water and all you know is to turn on the tap. We’re just trying to get people to think about it more. At the same time, it makes sense to research it.”

Another goal is to map the aquifer, the location of which is currently unknown. Hubbard believes it is bound by Narragansett Bay and the Great Creek.

“We also know it is a difficult aquifer to analyze because it is of fractured rock, which confounds normal patterns of recharge and flow,” he said. “Further, it has been stressed by housing development, which increases demand and concentrates rainfall so as to increase runoff as opposed to recharge.”

Nelson-Lee suggested the board could recommend the town apply for grants to map the range and extent of the aquifer, which supplies half the town’s water.

The sewage and water systems drawn from the two reservoirs stop at Weeden Lane. Homes in the north end rely on wells that collect groundwater sourced from the bedrock aquifer and the North Pond watershed. The two primary issues, Turenne said, are the obvious ones: the quantity and quality of the water being collecting.

A soil scientist by trade, Turenne received calls from his neighbors about their water usage after wells went dry during 2016. This typically happens in late summer. Last week, Rhode Island was classified as having “abnormally dry” conditions by the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is a step below a formal drought declaration.

“If we have a drought, such as we’re experiencing now, as soon as the August, September months start to set in, that’s when the wells typically go dry,” said Turenne, who helped write the town’s onsite wastewater ordinance.

Townwide problem

Anecdotally, Turenne said his well went dry in 2017, forcing his family to live two days without water while they waited for their supply to slowly refill. Even then, they only used the water for emergency purposes.

While wells primarily are located north of Weeden Lane, Nelson Lee said it’s important for everyone in town, including utility customers, to grasp this problem.

“One of the great challenges of getting people to understand well water is that it’s a community resource,” she said. “What you do affects your neighbor.”

For example, Turenne highlighted yard irrigation as a significant use of water. Homeowners in the north end may not be aware that they are watering their lawn with the same water shared by the rest of their neighborhood, he said. Turenne recommended using rain barrels full of roof runoff to water gardens and lawns.

“That’s a major water use,” he said.

There are homeowners in the right location whose wells are deep enough to water all day, although that does no favors to their neighbors, Turenne said.

“They don’t realize that they’re pulling from my well, basically,” he said.

The group also is concerned about development in the Jamestown Shores. New homes would mean more strain on the aquifer.

“We’re not trying to stop development, but if the aquifer does fail and we completely deplete it, you got 500 houses that are going to need water,” Turenne said. “Our concern is the town is permitting these houses to go in and they’re going to have to provide the water. I don’t know if there’s enough.”

The board is currently mulling legal questions. If new homes are built in the north end, does the town have the responsibility to provide water? When there is a municipal ban on water usage, can that expand to private well owners? Can the town ban sprinkler systems on those properties during the summer?

“We’re all pulling from the same water,” Turenne said. “Even the north reservoir is pulling from our groundwater.”

While anecdotal evidence is widespread from well owners, Nelson-Lee said the board is focused on gathering scientific support. That befits a group that includes Turenne, a scientist, and Hubbard, a retired engineer.

“We want this to be a data-driven project,” she said. “It is a way to reduce some of the speculation and guesses people have.”

The board members currently meet when their schedules cooperate, although they do report monthly to the conservation commission. If that panel agrees with their suggestions, the town council will have the final say.

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