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Newport Considering New Fee for Stormwater Management

Jun 28, 2016

As the city grapples with the ongoing problem of water pollution, high bacteria counts and beach closures, a new fee is being considered.

By Mark Schieldrop (Patch Staff) | Original Source

NEWPORT, RI—All beaches along Aquidneck Island are open for swimming, but early on this summer, there already have been a few beach closures due to high bacteria counts.

And while Narragansett Bay in general is cleaner than it has been in 150 years, the recent beach closures show there's still a lot of work to do in solving the long-term problem of polluted runoff making its way into Rhode Island's most important asset, according to Save the Bay.

"These beaches are awesome recreational sites, heavily used and loved by both residents and visitors. The fact that we still have beach closures in 2016 is unacceptable,” said Save The Bay’s Baykeeper Tom Kutcher.

Last Wednesday, on the third day of summer, the state Department of Health announced closures for Easton's Beach and Sprouting Rock Beach in Newport and Mackerel Cove Beach in Jamestown, marking six beach closures to-date due to high bacteria levels affecting beaches from Barrington to Warwick to Jamestown and Newport.

The definite cause is human and animal feces. It gets into the bay from stormwater runoff. When it rains, polluted water from roads, parking lots and hard surfaces rushes toward the ocean, delivering a strong dose of trash, pet and animal waste, oil and whatever else to streams, ponds and the shoreline along the way.

Cities and towns that have aggressively installed municipal sewer connections and stormwater improvement projects near beaches have seen immediate improvements. In Newport, the City Council is considering creating a fee for stormwater management to deal with the rising costs associated with maintaining and upgrading the city's drainage system. The idea of a fee also reflects a growing trend of municipalities re-thinking their approach to water pollution control, and in some cases, establishing distinct stormwater utilities.

The fee would help the city increase the pace of removal of private and public sources of storm runoff to comply with a consent decree executed with the state Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It would also better reflect the true cost of the city's maintenance and upkeep of the stormwater management system, which is funded through existing sewer fees.

Newport City Councilor Naomi Neville said as she introduced the resolution at last week's city council meeting that the fee structure would create a "transparent separation of costs."

"We just voted on a $38 million sewer and stormwater project and 15 percent of that is stormwater," she said.

It would also potentially persuade property owners to take steps to mitigate runoff. Some communities with similar fees base the cost structure on the percentage of previous or impervious surfaces. The more blacktop, the bigger the bill.

And, Neville said, the measure would apply to everyone, including nonprofits that own property in the city.

"There's potential in creating an equitable system," she said.

Save the Bay supports the move. "This is an important first step toward financing the construction and operation of stormwater infrastructure designed to keep waters clean and reduces the risk of flooding of streets and homes," the agency said in a news release.

“We’ve made great progress cleaning up discharges from the big municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Now, it’s up to individuals and towns to take greater responsibility for outdated septic systems and pollution from our streets and sidewalks, because it all ends up in our coastal waters. Our beaches are so important to our quality of life in the summer. It’s such a shame to see this continue,” Kutcher said.

City Manager Joseph Nicholson Jr. told the City Council that a report based on the request could be produced in roughly eight months. He said the notion of breaking out stormwater management from general water pollution and sewer management budgets is "something other communities are looking at and we want to look at it to get in front of it."

The urgency is amplified by an increasing number of "extreme storm events," according to the resolution. Sea level rise, plus increased impervious surface and floods "all which contribute to surcharging the existing storm drain system and resulting in increased surface flooding in low areas."

In the meantime, Rhode Islanders can do quite a bit to stem the tide. Save the Bay provided these suggestions:

1. Redirect downspouts onto lawn and garden areas in order to reduce the amount of water running off the land and into storm drains;

2. Minimize use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which contaminate the Bay and harm wildlife;

3. Clean up pet poop - even in one’s own backyard - to reduce fecal bacteria in our waters;

4. Do not feed ducks and geese, whose waste adds bacteria and excess nutrients to runoff;

5. Avoid overwatering lawns or using excess water in washing vehicles;

6. Collect rainwater in rain barrels and leave grass clippings on the ground to help lawns retain moisture;

7. Do not use storm drains for pet waste, grass clippings, leaves, road sand, cigarette butts or other trash, paint, oil, cleansers or any other substance;

8. Keep septic systems in working order;

9. Replace your cesspool with a modern septic system or sewer tie-in;

10. Support efforts by cities and towns to fund the projects that can reduce and treat polluted run-off.

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