The board of the Narragansett Bay Commission has voted to move forward with the final phase of a water quality project designed to overhaul its old sewer systems. The wastewater agency is struggling with how much it will cost to complete the project, aimed at further improving water quality in Narragansett Bay.
The Narragansett Bay Commission calls its multi-decade water quality project: “The biggest project you’ll never see.” (It’s also known as the Combined Sewer Overflow project.) It’s a system of underground tunnels and storage tanks meant to fix problems with the urban area’s older pipes that carry both sewage and stormwater.
Those pipes were built in the late 1800s to early 1900s, said Raymond Marshall, the executive director of the wastewater agency. “When it rains, the stormwater comes into our system at numerous locations, and at some point overwhelms the capacity of the pipes,” he said.
Untreated sewage and stormwater ended up polluting upper Narragansett Bay, violating the federal Clean Water Act.
“And so over the last 15 years, we’ve been working to intercept those overflow points and drop them into a tunnel, which exists in the Field’s Point service district,” explained Marshall. “Now we are looking to do a similar type of project in the Bucklin Point service district.”
That would involve building a second large tunnel that would run through Pawtucket, Central Falls and the northern part of East Providence.
“And by the way, since the original tunnel went online in November 1st of 2008, we’ve captured and treated 6.3 billion gallons of flow,” said Marshall. “So that would have gone raw right into the receiving waters. Now it’s getting full treatment at the Field’s Point treatment plant.”
Marshall expects to see more improvements from the project’s second phase, which was recently completed. He said the third phase at the Bucklin Point facility is designed to improve the water quality in the Blackstone and the Seekonk Rivers.
How will the state measure those improvements? By the number of additional shellfishing days after each storm. In this scenario, it could be an additional 3 ½ to 4 ½ days, said Marshall. It’ll cost $815 million to get there. Marshall said that will add more than $300 per year to the typical customer’s bill.
“Let’s say they’re about $460 [per year] now,” said Marshall. “They might be up to $500 in 5 years just through normal inflation costs, but then the rate will probably go up into the mid $700s – $750 per year.”
Customers won’t feel the impact to their wallets until around the year 2018 or 2019.
But the agency is already worried about how it will affect low-income residents in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls.
“I don’t want to make you think we don’t care what happens in Lincoln and Cumberland,” said Marshall. “We do, but it’s the people who can least afford it that are located within those communities for the most part.”
From his seat at the board of the Narragansett Bay Commission, Rick Burroughs shares those concerns. And what’s more, he’s not convinced the final phase of the project will bring enough water quality improvement to make it worth doing.
“We need to be realistic about what is achievable,” said Burroughs.
The Narrangansett Bay Commission has to make changes to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. But Burroughs noted the federal government allowed the state of Rhode Island to set its water quality standards.
“It turns out in Rhode Island, we identified only class A and class B waters, those being the cleanest, and we did not identify C waters,” said Burroughs, meaning Rhode Island set the bar high, even for industrial areas.
Burroughs said the state should consider revising those standards for some areas. And he said the Narragansett Bay Commission could lead the way.
“Can we do that? The answer is maybe,” said Burroughs, “but we would have to have a consensus throughout the state, including the Department of Environmental Management, that this was the prudent way to proceed for the state of Rhode Island.”
Burroughs said that might achieve a better balance between the costs for residents and the mandate to improve water quality.
He and other board members pledged to tell state and federal regulators (the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) about their concerns when they submit their plans for the final phase of the project, which will bring the total cost to as much as $1.5 billion.
As some board members pointed out, that’s more than the Paw Sox want to build a new stadium, and much more than the $20 million open space bond voters approved last year.
And most of the cost will have to be paid by only about 118,000 households and the businesses in the Narragansett Bay Commission’s service area.
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Note: This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Dr. Rick Burroughs' last name.