URI Expert Explains How To Prevent Storm Runoff From Polluting The Bay

URI's Lorraine Joubert discusses how to keep that filthy water from getting into the Narragansett Bay.

It is beach season in Rhode Island.

Pack up the kids, the beach towels and umbrella, the cooler, and a bucketful of suntan lotion and head for the shore.

Here are some things you won't have to take: cigarette butts, lawn fertilizer, pet poop, and oil and gas residues from roads and driveways. They will get there on their own.

What Rhode Islanders don't realize as well as they should is that the main source of pollution to our water bodies is storm-water runoff. A recent University of Rhode Island survey found that nearly 90 percent of those polled believed that the most damaging sources of pollution coming into our rivers, Narragansett Bay and the ocean are from industrial discharges and municipal-wastewater-treatment plants.  

Not so.

The Ocean State has done a wonderful job in recent years of improving water quality and cleaning up its beaches. Wastewater-treatment facilities are steadily becoming more efficient, and discharging less and less pollution.  

Since the 1980s, the prime source of marine and freshwater pollution has been identified as storm-water runoff. What should be most worrisome is that storm water is now becoming a bigger threat to the cleanest waters in the state, because of spreading development. Throughout Rhode Island, forests and fields have been replaced by people and homes whose roofs, driveways and other paved surfaces prevent water from seeping into the ground and being treated naturally by the environment.

Rainwater hitting all that pavement picks up all the material lying there, and storm drains carry directly to the nearest waterway, almost always without treatment.

So the fact remains that you may still be swimming along with a mix of elements that find their way to Narragansett Bay and the seaside in general through being washed down storm drains. And yes, all those items have been contributed courtesy of the public, wittingly or not.

As the summer begins, some beaches have already been closed because of high levels of bacterial contamination found by the state Department of Health's water monitors, especially - and predictably - following rainstorms. Some are popular and much-frequented spots in the upper Bay, such as Conimicut Point; some are as remote as Third Beach, in Middletown. Research shows the problem is coming from onshore, washed into storm drains after a heavy rain en route to the nearest water body, and not from the local sewage-treatment plant.

The cigarette butts may not be extremely toxic, but they sure don't enhance the bathing experience. Excess lawn fertilizers are an invisible menace, setting off a biological chain reaction in the marine waters that alters natural life processes and can end up with serious fish kills in the dog days of summer, such as the 2003 catastrophe in Greenwich Bay.

When you start considering the waste deposited by Fluffy or Fido on their nightly walks being transported by the next gully washer to your favorite seashore site, you are edging into "Aaack!" territory, not to mention risking an ear infection or stomach problems. Seeing an oil sheen on the water as you surface from diving into the bay that didn't get there from your Coppertone is equally unappealing, and not so hot for your health, either.

New state storm-water regulations that went into effect in January should dramatically improve the way Rhode Island deals with runoff issues. But right now, the ways to reduce storm-water pollution that threaten to make your beach day less enjoyable are little more than cost-free actions.

Want to get rid of those cigarette butts and fast food wrappers? Put them in the trash where they belong. Most folks are extremely anti-littering, but smokers, you have to know filters are considered litter.

The same goes for pet poop. No one likes to pick it up, but neither do you want it to be part of that wave you are body-surfing. If you do scoop it up, put it in the trash with the butts and burger wrappers, do not just then toss it somewhere that people don't walk, or throw it down a storm drain anyhow. (No kidding, it happens.) And while everyone thinks it is cute to feed the ducks, swans and geese, remember their waste contaminates water as much as that from any other warm-blooded animals.

With fertilizers and other nutrients there are a couple of recommendations. First, don't use so much of it. And you should have been doing this last September, so don't apply it now. Second, don't overwater. Too much watering just drives the nutrients that will rob the Bay of its oxygen into the runoff areas more quickly and in higher amounts. Not to mention that it lowers your water bills, because once-a-week watering is just perfect for most lawns.  

For cars and trucks, there is little you can do about the impacts of just plain driving places. But you do not have to celebrate the Little Rhody tradition of washing down your driveway, which just speeds oily deposits and equally damaging leaves and grass clippings (read: nutrients) into storm drains. If you wash your car at home, do it on a grassy surface to let there be some sort of natural filter for the soapy water. Or use a car wash, where they recycle the water and the remainder goes to a wastewater treatment plant, not directly to where you will be swimming and fishing.

It isn't too hard to make sure that some very unwanted guests don't take the storm-water shortcut and arrive at the beach before you.


Lorraine Joubert is director of the Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials program (NEMO) at the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension and Rhode Island Stormwater Solutions, a statewide education campaignRI Stormwater Solutions is funded by the RI Department of Transportation as part of their stormwater management program, in partnership with the RI Department of Environmental Management and a broad coalition of RI cities and towns, businesses and non-profit groups (www.ristormwatersolutions.org).


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