Environmental Report Card Issued Today

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


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Water quality at ocean and bay beaches is improving; Rhode Island’s municipalities need to stop paving over their greenscapes; the state may be taking its freshwater resources for granted; and keep a sharp eye on invasive species and the impacts of climate change.

Those, in an organic nutshell, are the messages to be taken away from Watershed Counts!, a collaborative effort by leading environmental organizations and state agencies to be issued today that will report on key areas and target needed improvements in protecting the health and economic resources of the Narragansett Bay Watershed.

Extraordinary Effort

Watershed Counts! had praise for the General Assembly’s passage of landmark legislation to address their focus issues. But with possible state and federal budget cuts conceivably just around the corner, they said there is still a need to continue to fully implement the laws while expanding the state’s ability to track and assess environmental conditions and change.

“This is an extraordinary effort to bring together the most knowledgeable people to tell us how our environment is doing and why. We should be proud of the progress, but we have a huge amount of work to do still,” said Baykeeper John Torgan of Save The Bay.

Five Areas of Concern

The report card focused on five key areas:

The water quality at Narragansett Bay and ocean beaches is noticeably improving. There has been a 36 percent decrease in beach closure days since 2006, and the bulk of these come from a few problem beaches, such as Atlantic Beach Club and First Beach on Aquidneck Island, Greenwich Bay beaches, and those in upper Narragansett Bay.

Since 2001, Rhode Island beaches have received over two million dollars in federal money driving over 10 million dollars in remediation by cities, towns and private beach owners. Water quality monitoring accompanied by pollution source identification and hands-on action is needed, says Watershed Counts!, to continue improvements, a key to attracting Rhode Islanders statewide and tourists.

Hard Surfaces
Hard land surfaces, known as “impervious cover,” are made up of roadways, driveways and roofs. The runoff from those unyielding surfaces contributes a great deal to the polluted stormwater that impairs the state’s lakes, streams and Narragansett Bay. It can also contribute to events such as the Great Floods of 2010, diverting more water into already rain-swollen rivers and streams in the metropolitan Providence area.

Impervious cover increased almost 45 percent between 1972 and 1999, six times faster than population growth in the state. Fourteen percent of the Narragansett Bay watershed is now under hard surfacing. This can result in environmental problems Rhode Island will eventually have to pay to combat, and costs Rhode Island a great deal of money when the state invests in projects like Providence’s new combined sewer overflow tunnel, supported by a bond but still the largest public works project in RI history.

Within RI, impervious cover for each town ranges from three to an undesirable 40 percent. Right now, only 17 towns in the state have less than 10 percent impervious cover. Pavement manufacturers have come up with numerous alternatives, as have landscape designers. Watershed Counts! points out that the development of these technologies will shift and grow employment, not harm it.

Freshwater Resources
Rhode Island now has enough rainfall to support its freshwater system of groundwater aquifers, rivers, streams, and lakes. These provide water for a wide range of purposes: drinking water, industry, agriculture, and public safety, like firefighting needs.

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But Watershed Counts! warns there is a limit to this resource.

In some suburban communities, summertime demand for water is two or three times wintertime usage. Much of this water is used to water lawns – an unnecessary practice that can’t keep up with the demands of new development. In southern parts of the state, more water is taken from the ground than is returned by rain, and the water supply is depleted. Several watersheds in Rhode Island are “stressed” – essentially they reach drought-like conditions during non-drought years – by the over-withdrawal of water. Last year in North Kingstown, the economic consequences of overuse of water were seen when a possible lack of available water for such essentials as firefighting led to a temporary halt to planned and approved development projects.

Present and Future Threats: Climate Change and Invasive Species

Climate Change
The report cited climate change and how it is being addressed as a factor in any grading of progress in the environmental arena. It will impact all of the focus areas of the environmental study.

Climate change is already happening in the Narragansett Bay Watershed and will intensify in the years to come, said Watershed Counts! Monitoring studies show increases in air and water temperatures, rising sea level, and increasing rainfall and storm intensity, resulting in more inland flooding.

Surface water temperature in Narragansett Bay has increased by 3.3 degrees and sea level has risen over 8 inches since 1930. The change in temperature and precipitation will cause widespread shoreline flooding during high tides and coastal storms, especially during hurricanes and Nor’easters.

Invasive Species
Invasive species are not easily recognizable to the average citizen, and there is no need in RI to worry about national media darlings zebra mussels or snakehead fish destroying the local marine habitat, so the threat may seem benign.

But as the report stated, “When plants or animals are released into areas outside their native range, without their natural predators, they can grow and reproduce out of control, destabilizing the environment and harming native species and human activities.”

In RI, freshwater aquatic invasive species are already found in over 70 lakes and ponds, where they are affecting the ecological balance, impairing boating, fishing, and swimming, and reducing lakeside property values. (Invasive water chestnuts being removed from a local waterway at right.)

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Land species as well as water plants can cause huge environmental and economic damage. For example, one insect, the Asian Longhorned Beetle, has cost Massachusetts $62 million dollars in less than three years. Forests in Worcester, Massachusetts, have had to be destroyed to prevent the trees from providing a pathway for the beetle to spread to neighboring cities and states.

Outstanding Collaboration

URI Coastal Institute Director Judith Swift admired the group contributions to the report. “We have been working together on this report for a year,” she said. “I am impressed by the commitment of the many partners – 34 agencies and organizations have contributed to this effort. The diversity speaks to the success of the Watershed Counts! partnership – a partnership that will strengthen and grow in the years ahead.”

The Watershed Counts! coalition includes five Rhode Island state agencies (RI Department of Environmental Management, RI Department of Health, RI Department of Administration, RI Water Resources Board and RI Department of Transportation) and leading environmental organizations (including Save the Bay, Audubon Society of RI, and many others) facilitated by the Coastal Institute at URI, the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, and the RI Bays, Rivers, and Watersheds Coordination Team. Watershed Counts! will expand in future years as more information is added to the Earth Day report.

Environmental Lobby Day at State House

The Watershed Counts! report card announcement at the State House will be made in conjunction with the “Environment/Earth Day Lobby Day,” coordinated by the Environment Council of Rhode Island, and slated to feature appearances by Governor Lincoln Chafee, Sen. Susan Sosnowski, chair of the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Arthur Handy, the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee chairman.

Abel Collins, program manager at Sierra Club RI and vice president of policy for ECRI, said of Earth Day Lobby Day, “This is the one of the most exciting and meaningful Lobby Days that I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of. For the first time in many years, the governor is participating, marking a renewed sense of cooperation between the environmental community and the administration.”

“Plus, there are a number of important bills being considered this session," Collins said. “ECRI and its members are working to secure greater investment in our transit system, foster responsible manufacturing, fight climate change, oppose waste incineration, and create green jobs while we’re at it.”

Key Bills in Play

The priority list of bills being supported (and one opposed) by ECRI during this session of the General Assembly are listed below, with the Environment Council's description:

Producer Responsibility Walsh (H5888), Ruggerio (S459). Establishes a framework for manufacturers to be responsible for collecting and recycling their products and providing an incentive to design products that are less toxic, more durable, and easier to recycle.

The Transportation Investment and Debt Reduction Act DiPalma (S148), O’Grady (H5789). Creates a dedicated trust fund to provide for investments in road and bridge repair, as well as and transit services, while simultaneously reducing the amount of state borrowing needs.

The Energy Independence and Climate Solutions Act Handy (H5887), Walaska (S724). Reduces greenhouse gas emissions in Rhode Island by 20 percent by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. The bill will increase jobs and investment in the clean energy economy.

Rhode Island’s Waste Incineration Ban. ECRI opposes (H5315) overturning the state ban on incinerating municipal waste, defining trash incineration as renewable energy, and allowing a waste to energy incinerator to be built in Woonsocket.

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