Monday, April 16, 2018

Mystery on the Runnins River

by Rachel Calabro, former Riverkeeper

The nine-mile Runnins River, which flows south through Seekonk and East Providence before emptying into Hundred Acre Cove, has suffered from high levels of bacteria for decades. While Hundred Acre Cove remains a popular place for fishing, kayaking and rowing, it has been closed to shellfishing since the 1980s because of that bacteria. An extensive, coordinated effort by Rhode Island and Massachusetts environmental agencies to identify the specific source of contamination has yet to yield a clear answer. Monitoring has revealed that bacteria levels are high in both dry and wet weather, so the culprit is not just polluted stormwater. Pipes have been investigated, septic systems analyzed and potential human markers—chemicals that might be found in human sewage, such as caffeine, chlorine, ammonia and the surfactants that are prevalent in laundry soap -- have been tested. But no obvious answers have been found. 

The Runnins River flows through thick strands of phragmites
in the "triangle" area of Seekonk. Bacteria in this area has
been high for decades, without clear explanation.
For Save The Bay, giving up is not an option. This is why our Riverkeeper program recently revived the Runnins River Task Force, a team that includes scientists and federal, state and local agencies that will explore new avenues of investigation. 

What we know: The Runnins River is impacted by businesses on Route 6, industrial development and small septic systems. It flows into a low marshy area called the “triangle” just before it hits Route 114, emptying out into Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington. An as-yet unexplored possibility is that the bacteria may be incubating within the phragmites marsh itself, as stagnant water warms in the vegetation. A dam, owned by the Exxon/Mobil Corporation, contributes to the stagnation of water. In another twist, Mobil has been required for years to pump groundwater out of the system because of a history of contamination. The Task Force will explore the possibility that groundwater pumping may be drawing more bacteria into the river. We will also look at the effects of higher tides and the backwatering from the Mobil Dam. 

Funding for this kind of work comes from federal sources, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Southeastern New England Program. Massachusetts and Rhode Island both rely heavily on state and local agencies to enforce important federal environmental laws protecting our local waters. Many of these agencies receive significant federal funding to do so. What happens at the federal level could have significant impacts on our water quality locally. 

Water quality testing on the Runnins River, for instance, is made possible by funding that comes from our regional EPA office and goes directly to Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). If the regional EPA office is eliminated, or if Clean Water Act funding is cut, our ability to retain experts and engineers to help solve some of our long-standing issues in the Bay—such as the mysterious bacteria pollution in the Runnins River—will be severely hampered. It is imperative that Congress push back against proposals to weaken the Clean Water Act and the programs that support local Bay cleanup efforts. At the same time, state political leaders must also step up and invest in environmental agencies that are charged with protecting and improving Narragansett Bay. 

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