Thursday, May 3, 2018

Restoring Sabin Point

by Elizabeth Droge-Young, communications intern

Tucked away in a charming East Providence neighborhood, Sabin Point Park has been a favorite spot on the Bay for generations. In the Facebook group “The Love for Sabin Point Park,” older residents reminisce about crisply-uniformed sailors walking the beach in the summer of 1945, while newcomers recount recent visits and hunts for horseshoe crabs. But despite the panoramic view of the Bay as it washes onto the park’s sandy beach, visitors are confined to the shoreline. The beach hasn’t been swimmable in generations—but Save The Bay is working with the City of East Providence to restore the water quality of the beach so that someday, Sabin Point can become the northernmost swimmable point in Narragansett Bay. 

Sabin Point beach-goers enjoy the beach,
but the water is off limits to swimming.
Although water quality at Sabin Point has steadily improved with decades of investment in wastewater treatment in the upper Bay, bacteria levels remain high at the beach. The culprit? A few improperly installed road drainage pipes that carry polluted runoff directly onto the beach. 

“I got the story from three separate neighborhood residents, this crazy story, that every time it would rain, the ground would rumble and then a huge plug of stinky water and material would pour out of those pipes,” recalls Tom Kutcher, former Save The Bay Baykeeper. 

After Save The Bay worked with East Providence city engineers to pull up blueprints for the pipes, roughly two feet in diameter, the cause of the beach bacteria levels and the post-storm rumbles became clear. Instead of being angled downhill toward the beach, the pipes had been pitched back toward the park. At every high tide, Bay water, along with seaweed and waste from geese, washed into the pipes. Making matters worse, the pipes collected polluted runoff from Sabin Point neighborhood streets. 

“They were big pipes, so they could hold a lot of seaweed. It was basically a bacteria breeding ground,” Kutcher said. During a big rain, the pipes would fill with enough polluted runoff to push the plug of decomposing material onto the beach. 

Pipes discharge polluted runoff from neighborhood
streets directly onto Sabin Point beach.
To assess the effects of the discharge, Save The Bay and the Rhode Island Department of Health partnered to sample the water quality at Sabin Point beach. “We learned that bacteria levels exceeded swimming standards in the vicinity of the pipes, while further away from the pipes, the water met swimming standards,” said Save The Bay Director of Habitat Restoration Wenley Ferguson. 

Once the bacterial source was identified, Save The Bay went to work with the City of East Providence to find funding to treat the polluted runoff and to rectify the decades-old engineering flaw. The overarching goal is to treat polluted runoff that drains to the beach and remove the drainage pipes. Save The Bay developed a conceptual stormwater management plan that was used to secure a $47,000 grant from the Bay and Watershed Restoration Fund for the development of a comprehensive stormwater management plan covering the entire watershed and the design and installation of a shallow basin, called a sand filter, within the park. The sand filter, to be installed in fall 2017, slows and filters runoff from the neighborhood streets and Sabin Point’s parking lot and redirects water away from one of the discharge pipes at the beach. 

The City of East Providence and Save The Bay sought and won an additional $100,000 grant in 2015 for the construction of additional stormwater infiltration areas in the Sabin Point Park neighborhood to reduce the amount of runoff that makes it to the beach. That grant, awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Southeast New England Program and administered by the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission, represents important federal funding crucial to the Sabin Point project and many other local environmental and infrastructure initiatives. 

Sea lettuce, a type of seaweed that grows abundantly in waters
with high nutrients, accumulates on the beach at Sabin Point.

The grant also included water quality monitoring, which has been taken on by the Department of Health and Brown University researcher David Murray, a Sabin Point Park neighbor. He contacted his neighbor Jeanne Boyle, then-director of planning for the City of East Providence, and what began as a neighborly chat while raking leaves, blossomed into a monitoring plan spearheaded by Murray. “I thought Sabin Point Park could be a nice place to spend time if we moved the storm drain pipes that empty onto the beach,” Murray recalls. “The projects now underway at Sabin Point have the potential to make a tremendous improvement,” he said. 

Although Boyle has left her position in East Providence, the partnership forged with the city continues. Ferguson and the city collaborated on a third grant in 2017 for design and construction to “daylight” the runoff in the large pipe that leads to the beach into a series of a infiltration basins further inland. The long term goal is for the pipes that discharge on the beach to be removed. “The city’s commitment runs deep, from dedicating both staff time and expertise and actual funds to match the state and federal grants” said Ferguson. 
“East Providence is committed to continuing the partnerships among state and federal agencies and Save The Bay towards the goal of returning Sabin Point Park to a swimmable beach,” said City of East Providence Acting Planning Director Diane Feather. 

The watershed plan is being used as a blueprint to treat and manage stormwater from this urban watershed, and local, state and federal funds are needed to achieve the goal of opening the beach for swimming. 

“The massive strides to make Sabin Point Park swimmable shows the commitment of everyone in the state: from voters and municipalities supporting wastewater treatment improvements, to years of stringent permitting efforts by the Department of Environmental Management,” Ferguson says. 

Kutcher echoes this sentiment, “It would be a huge victory for Narragansett Bay, and for all partners working really hard to clean up the Bay. This will be an important milestone.” 

Sabin Point Park is just one example of how Save The Bay partners with local government to improve Narragansett Bay quality and accessibility. A similar effort is underway at Stillhouse Cove in Cranston, and communities throughout the state are pursuing projects to improve local waters through stormwater management. Thirty years ago, residents described grease balls, mixed with human waste, washing ashore. “Now, the upper Bay is alive with activity from the community boating center at India Point Park, to kayakers paddling along the shoreline and people gathering at WaterFire, where historically the smell of the urban river would have driven people away,” Ferguson says. 

All of these successes rely on diverse players, including citizens supporting bond measures to fund water quality improvements, supportive local government agencies to execute plans and provide matching funds, and ongoing federal funding of the EPA and the EPA’s Southeast New England Program—both of which are currently under threat at the federal level, where commitment to environmental protections is waning. 

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