Almost as soon as the State of Rhode Island was opening its beaches for swimming this summer, it was closing them again due to high bacteria counts in the water. On July 17, after several days of heavy rain, high bacteria counts prompted the State Department of Health to close Middletown’s Atlantic Beach Club Beach to swimming. Beaches in Newport, Warren and Warwick were also forced to close. Then, later in the month, Easton’s Beach in Newport and Atlantic Beach Club in Middletown were closed yet again due to polluted stormwater after heavy rain. With heavy rain flooding our streets today, we expect another round of beach closures tomorrow.
Here we are, the Ocean State, with some of the most beautiful beaches and coastal areas in the country, with Newport a city that attracts visitors from all over the world – yet, before we head to our favorite beach, we have to check a website to make sure it isn’t closed due to contaminated water.
Bacteria, more specifically, enterococci, is sadly the more pleasant catch-all word for the “human and animal waste” that ends up in the water that we drink and swim and play in after a lot of rain. When the levels are too high a beach is closed to protect public health. When the bacteria count returns to an “acceptable” limit the beaches are re-opened. But, the reopening comes with this caveat: “Despite best efforts to monitor water quality and close beaches, people can get intestinal infections after being exposed to contaminated water.” The physical effects of pollution – upset stomachs, diarrhea, rashes, sore throats or earaches, or a child’s disappointment after a long car ride or an even longer bus ride to find a favorite beach closed – can ruin a beach experience, an entire beach season, and the State’s reputation.
The bacterial pollution that contaminates our favorite beaches is the result of uncontrolled stormwater run-off. Our cities and towns have stormwater drainage systems that receive the rainwater pouring off the roads – with grease and oil – and off lawns with failed septic systems; but these systems also take on all the water running off rooftops and parking lots and paved areas all over our towns and neighboring communities. This water has no place to go before it hits the beach or the drinking water supplies, because all of the paved areas prevent it from returning to the ground.
Our cities and towns have Clean Water Act permits that require them to ensure their stormwater systems are functioning properly, but they can only control certain aspects of the system, like cleaning out the catch basins and sweeping the streets. They haven’t been able require private property owners or commercial properties (with their flat roofs and large parking lots) to address stormwater run-off from their sites. This means that the municipal system gets far more polluted water than it is designed to handle. It also means that maintaining and retrofitting a stormwater system that can handle such a big problem costs a lot more money than our cities and towns have to address the issue.
The Clean Water Act requires all properties contributing to water quality violations to obtain and comply with permits to reduce this run-off. With so much rain and so many non-paying parking lots, and commercial and industrial areas all contributing run-off, Conservation Law Foundation believes it is time to identify all of the users of the municipal stormwater systems and to ask them to contribute their share to maintaining the system in proportion to the burden they place on it.
In the Ocean State, our beaches should always be open for business.
A version of this post appeared in The Newport Daily News on August 5, 2014.