Little Narragansett Bay is still off-limits to shellfishing because of poor water quality

Little Narragansett Bay is still off-limits to shellfishing because of poor water quality

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — Envious residents of the towns on Little Narragansett Bay looked on recently as shellfishing areas to the north that had been closed for 70 years were reopened. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management announced the expansion of shellfishing grounds in upper Narragansett Bay at the end of May, but Little Narragansett Bay closures remain in effect because of continued contamination.

DEM Director Janet Coit attributed the expanded access in the upper bay to tougher pollution laws and a combined sewer overflow abatement project, which captures and treats sewage and other pollutants before they enter the bay.

“This is a momentous day for Rhode Island, a day we celebrate progress in restoring water quality, and welcome shellfishermen back to historic waters,” she announced. “I look forward to our continued work together to reduce pollution and address other threats to ensure that all Rhode Islanders have access to a healthy and productive Narragansett Bay.”

Save the Bay South County Coastkeeper David Prescott welcomed the news, but he noted that continuous investments in infrastructure are needed to control runoff in Little Narragansett Bay.

Angelo Liberti, chief of surface water protection in the DEM’s Office of Water Resources, explained why Upper Narragansett Bay has had three long-standing shellfish closure areas.

“Providence and Central Falls and Pawtucket had a really old, combined sewer system, and where stormwater would combine with sewage into the same set of pipes,” he said. “If it was a small amount of rainfall, it would go on to the wastewater treatment plant for treatment, but as the storm got larger, the system got overwhelmed and a mixture of raw sewage and rainwater would discharge right into nearby rivers and to the bay.”

A sewer overflow abatement program has drastically reduced contaminants, which are now collected in an underground storage tunnel and gradually pumped back to the treatment plant. Water samples collected after the construction of Phases I and II of the abatement program were clean enough to permit the reopening of the shellfishing grounds.

“The water quality improved enough that we could lift any restriction based on rainfall,” Liberti said. “So that was the biggest news. That’s the first time in about 70-plus years that that particular piece of the upper bay has not had to close in response to rainfall.”

The news is not as positive for the South Coast salt ponds and Little Narragansett Bay, both of which are compromised by nutrient overloading and runoff. Stormwater runoff has the greatest impact on shellfish, because it carries high levels of bacteria from failed septic systems and cesspools as well as wildlife excrement.

“At this time, we haven’t shown any significant change in water quality data in any of those water bodies that have allowed us to make any changes to either Little Narragansett Bay or the salt ponds that currently have harvesting restrictions,” Liberti said.

Today, only a single, tiny area of the Rhode Island side of Little Narragansett Bay remains open to shellfishing, but Prescott said many people are unaware of the closures.

“There’s a very small triangle off the eastern tip of Sandy Point down to Napatree Point,” Prescott said. “That’s the only place in Little Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island waters that is open for shellfishing. You have an area where there’s a lot of transient boaters that come in and I’ve talked to people over the years that still shellfish and say ‘I’ve been shellfishing in that area forever’ and yet they don’t realize that it’s actually closed.”

In the Ninigret salt pond, the recently-completed dredging of the Charlestown Breachway has improved water flow and flushing, but excessive algae growth, a sign of nutrient overloading, is still an issue.

“I’ll be curious to see how things look over the summer, especially after the dredging,” Prescott said. “Is that actually helping? The flushing is good, there’s no question about that, but the other piece, too, is getting to the source of where these pollutants are coming from.”

In Westerly, Liberti said he was optimistic that the town’s stormwater issues would be resolved.

“DEM had been out sampling along the Pawcatuck River and found some stormwater drain pipes that had elevated levels, so the town has been working to identify where the elevated levels of bacteria are coming from,” Liberti said. “Those will need to be tracked down and addressed...I think they’re making some progress, sampling up into the storm sewer system to try to find inputs.”

Prescott said, “I do think the towns are starting to take some really good steps. It will get there, but it underlines how important it is to invest in clean water infrastructure and try to make these improvements, not only to improve the environment, but also connect that back to recreation and economics.”


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