NEW SHOREHAM — In hydrology, every water system has its intricacies. But Block Island may pose some of the heftiest water management challenges around.
Limited surface fresh water. Salt-heavy aquifers requiring reverse osmosis treatment. Wildly fluctuating seasonal demand due to growing tourism. It is safe to say John Breunig, water superintendent at the Block Island Water Company, has his work cut out for him.
“It’s a really, really hard place to run a utility — Block Island,” Breunig said. “I mean, just the island factor in general — more expenses, electricity, staffing — there’s so much that goes into it.”
But for the first time in 20 years, Block Island is getting a new water budget, which may help the town of New Shoreham to build better long-term resiliency into its water infrastructure.
“I don't think they need to ring the alarm bell quite yet, and hopefully not at all,” said Thomas Boving, the University of Rhode Island hydrologist heading the study. “But the fact is that something needs to be done [to] better understand the resources.”
The URI study, which began this fall and should conclude next summer, will look at how much water is available, how much can be safely withdrawn, and if the popular island can better economize its water resources.
“That’s the drift here, and we’ll learn a lot over the next 12 months,” Boving said.
Boving and a small team of graduate students and volunteers will install data-logging sensors in Block Island Water Company wells to gain a detailed minute-by-minute picture of water level, salinity, and tidal influence. Geo-electric measurements — taken by running an electric current through the upper 50-70 feet of the ground and tracking how it changes — will also provide a “two-dimensional cross-section” of the distribution of salt water and fresh water on the island.
The study will be the first comprehensive update on Block Island’s water system since URI hydrologist Anne Veeger completed a water use and availability study in 2000.
“There’s been a lot of changes in the world since then,” said Breunig, noting large environmental, social, and economic shifts on the island over the past few decades.
In the coming years, the climate crisis is expected to throw new challenges at the island, in the form of sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion — though Breunig noted the creep of salt water into fresh water wells had not been flagged as an issue for private well owners on the island thus far. The Block Island Water Company is also already equipped with some desalinization capacity, he said.
“Our wells purposely have an ocean influence to them,” Breunig said.
A few years after Veeger’s study was published, the Block Island Water Company changed its water treatment technology and sourcing, advancing from a surface water treatment facility to a groundwater brackish water facility, according to Breunig.
Deep wells draw non-potable, high-salt water up from below the island’s freshwater aquifers — which is what the private wells on the island typically tap into. The brackish water is then treated in the region’s first reverse osmosis facility, Breunig said. The desalinization process removes salts and irons from the water to pump out drinkable water.
Between these two sources, the island’s water supply isn’t drying up anytime soon, according to Breunig. But on the busiest days of the summer tourism season, New Shoreham’s water infrastructure is pushed close to its capacity.
“Tourism could have a heavy impact on the infrastructure of a small community like this,” said Brad Marthens, chair of the New Shoreham Water Commission and owner of the Atlantic Inn and Eli’s Restaurant. “It needs planning, but does it pose a threat to [the island]? No, I don’t think so.”
Tourism forms the bedrock of the Block Island economy, and it’s been growing in recent years. At an October meeting, as reported by The Block Island Times, the New Shoreham Tourism Council questioned whether the island had become too busy after a “remarkably” high-revenue 2021 season.
About 1,000 year-round residents call the island home, but in summer months the island can see 15,000 to 20,000 visitors per day. With that influx, Breunig said the Block Island Water Company goes from treating about 24,000 gallons to more than 190,000 gallons daily.
Utilities need to be built out to meet those peak demand days. But investing high sums into the infrastructure needed for just a fraction of the year is an “island decision,” Breunig said — and one that requires updated data. That is where the URI study comes in.
“It’s the first step so that we can have a knowledge base and start making educated decisions and plans,” Marthens said. “Without that, you’re just kind of [saying], ‘Let me wet my finger, put it up in the air and see which way the wind is blowing.’”
For now, tourists pose no substantial threat to the island’s water supply, Marthens said, and are still welcomed and encouraged at Block Island. The URI study, he said, should help ensure this in the long term as well.
“People definitely should be aware of the consequences of their daily lives, but that’s true beyond Block Island,” Boving said. “I would not say you should not go to Block Island because there is no water — that’s not the case at all, but people need to question their own actions and that is a much larger ethical question. This is the defining issue of our current times: how much are we willing to curtail certain behaviors for the greater good.”