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State needs to move forward with its water management

January 9, 2011

(By MEG KERR and SHEILA DORMODY)

Water. We take it for granted. We turn on the faucet and out it comes. Rhode Island is blessed with plentiful freshwater resources. But even here, freshwater is limited, and increasingly, we are bumping up against those limits. Throughout Rhode Island, residential overuse of treated drinking water, particularly in the summer months for lawn irrigation, creates excessive demands on water supplies.
North Kingstown has learned about the limits of water supply and is taking proactive measures to ensure adequate water for the town’s future development. North Kingstown’s municipal water supply is drawn from wells in the HAP (Hunt-Annaquatucket-Pettaquamscutt) aquifer. The town of North Kingstown shares the HAP aquifer with the Kent County Water Authority and the Quonset Development Corp. The average annual withdrawal by these three users is about 3.55 million gallons per day (mgd) and it can double during the summer months. The impact of these summertime withdrawals can be seen in the area’s dry streambeds and the declining populations of river fish that once flourished in Rhode Island’s freshwater streams.
In May 2010, the Water and Planning Directors for North Kingstown notified the Town Council that their projections indicated that the town had a water supply shortfall under the highest days of demand in the summer. In other words, the town did not have adequate pumping capacity to consistently meet this increased use. The planners strongly advised the Council to put in place effective policies to reduce peak demand and other wasteful uses of potable water supply so North Kingstown could to continue to grow and expand municipal water and fire services for new development.
During the summer, the Council thoroughly studied the issue, and in response to this warning light, put a new development proposal on hold because of water supply concerns. Council members learned that rather than developing new supplies, which would take a very long time and would be very expensive, they could create an increased supply by reducing summertime over-use of water. In late September, the Council passed a watering ordinance, limiting residential watering to twice a week. Complementing this action, in November the Council added a fourth, highest-cost tier to their water rates, targeted at high volume users, creating an economic incentive for water conservation. Both of these steps were laudable in their recognition of the water supply problem and finding solutions to address it. With these measures in place, the Council has been able to move forward with new development proposals, knowing that the water required to make them viable would not be endangering the town’s fire-fighting capability or harming environmental resources which rely upon an adequate supply of water
Other water suppliers should follow North Kingstown’s lead.
In 2009, the General Assembly passed the Water Use and Government Efficiency Act to better manage the state’s shared water resources and to invest in infrastructure repair and replacement. The Act recognizes the essential role played by the RI Water Resources Board in balancing water resource uses, and charged the board with establishing targets for non-agricultural demand management and water use by July 1, 2010. The board is also required to work with the RI Department of Environmental Management to provide water availability estimates to municipalities for use in local comprehensive plans. The Water Resources Board did not meet the July 1 deadline, and scaled back the scope of the initial drafts of the regulations considerably; but plans to go to public hearing in early 2011 with regulations. The regulations address targets and methods for efficient water use for major public water suppliers.
This is an important first step, but there is significant work still to do. In particular, Rhode Island needs the Water Resources Board to determine water availability so municipalities can make the critical link between development decisions and available future water supply. As part of that effort, we need complete and accurate reporting on water use so we can monitor progress toward improved water management.
Rhode Island has laws in place enabling the Water Resources Board to better manage water. The board has now taken an important first step in carrying out that responsibility – and not a moment too soon for a Rhode Island community like North Kingstown.

Meg Kerr is Watershed Program Manager with the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program; Sheila Dormody is Rhode Island Director of Clean Water Action. Both are also members of and representing the views of the Coalition for Water Security.

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