Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bay-Friendly Living: What causes those beach closures? We do

By Tom Kutcher, The Narragansett Baykeeper


I’m a surfer and I love the beach. So I hate it when the state Department of Health closes a beach to swimming. We’re about halfway through the beach season and we’ve lost a number of Aquidneck Island beach days to beach closures.

Atlantic Beach in Middletown has been closed three times, while Easton’s (First) Beach has been closed twice. Third Beach has been closed twice and Peabody’s Beach was closed seven days by two events. These beaches all were closed because of contamination by the kind of bacteria that can make you sick to your stomach, cause diarrhea and make you vomit. If the Department of Health doesn’t close the beaches, swimmers are at an unacceptable risk of contracting these dreadful symptoms. So, the agency closes the beaches to swimming, as they should.

Meanwhile, Melville Pond is off limits to all activities that might result in any water contact. There’s no swimming, fishing or even canoeing on the pond. It’s not safe for people or even pets. The culprit here is cyanobacteria, a toxic form of blue-green algae that’s also capable of causing stomach illness, not to mention skin rash, stinging eyes and even permanent liver damage if ingested. The cyanobacteria is caused by excessive nutrient pollution, usually stemming from fertilizers and waste.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Management announced it cyanobacteria also had been detected in Paradise Pond in Middletown.

So, why are these water resources polluted and how can this be fixed?

What we need to come to terms with is that these very different water resource ailments have one thing in common: the source of contamination. That source is us.

Through our daily activities, we inadvertently pollute our own precious water resources with the many pollutants we leave on the landscape that wash into the water. These include lawn and agricultural fertilizers, antifreeze and oil from our cars, pet waste and our own waste.

Much of the damage is done by water washing off streets and parking lots. Because the rainwater in the streets can’t be absorbed into the ground where the soil filters and treats most of the pollution, it simply washes the pollution off of these hard surfaces and into our waterways.

Another big contributor to water pollution is failing and inadequate septic systems, and cesspools that contaminate the groundwater that feeds into our rivers, ponds, reservoirs and beaches.

We never meant to do this. When we were building out our neighborhoods and business districts over decades and centuries, we didn’t know that cesspools and other inadequate means of expelling our waste would pollute our resources beyond utility. We didn’t realize that our cleared farmland would over-fertilize the adjacent surface waters. And, we didn’t expect that rain would carry velocity high enough to scour the pollution off of our lawns, driveways, streets and parking lots, and deposit it into our waterways.

But that’s exactly what happens. It’s happening on Aquidneck Island, in my home town of Wickford, across Rhode Island and around the world.

The good news is: This can all be fixed. In contrast to when the area was originally developed, we now understand the process of water pollution and how to treat it. The challenge is that it will take money, effort and a lot of political will to make it happen. Water needs to be diverted into vegetated soils rather than into rivers. Streets and parking lots need to be redesigned. And we need to be more careful about what we put onto the landscape. We need to pick up after our pets, use less lawn fertilizer and keep our cars leak-free. Some of our local youth have taken up the charge, for example, by designing and building rain gardens at Rogers High School in Newport to filter rainwater coming off the school roof and parking lots.

As adults, we can do that and more. We can create the political will to invest in the fixes that will make our beaches safe. We need to stress to our political leaders that clean water is important our health, recreation and quality of life.

Everyone knows that the beaches of Aquidneck Island are major economic drivers that bring hundreds of thousands of visitors per year to our communities in the summer months. Aquidneck Islanders and visitors alike use our ocean and Bay year round — for surfing, fishing, snorkeling, sailing and swimming.

We need to accept that fixing our water ailments won’t be free, or even cheap, but it’s an investment worth making. Clean water is an investment in our own selves and in our children, and is a year-round proposition. Please join our young stewards in taking the steps necessary to get this done.

Newport Daily News