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  • Tom Sgouros

Clean Water? Still yes!

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

There continues to be some confusion about the current state of the North Kingstown water ordinances, especially related to the proposal to update them. I thought I would add some information to the earlier article about them. There are a lot of downsides to the information age, but one of the great things is that things like town ordinances are available at the click of a mouse, and the town's current groundwater ordinance is right here, section 21-186 of article VIII.

I read it, and found there a couple of interesting points. First is that it does not protect the town's groundwater reservoir areas. It protects wellhead protection areas, as defined by the EPA and RI DEM in December 1991. (The new wellhead protection areas drawn last year, are much larger.) The ordinance does reference a bunch of contemporaneous reports (from 1991) about wellhead protection areas as it lists the different areas of town, so it is a little hard to tell exactly what is being talked about.

However, in the listing of the wellhead protection areas in paragraph (c)(1)(b), the ordinance does specifically call out the Hunt River reservoir area, to include it with the wellhead area at the higher level of protection. The Hunt is one of the three reservoir areas in town, along with the Annaquatucket and Pettaquamscutt areas, but the other two are not called out in the same way.

Update: Apparently the ordinance did once mention groundwater reservoirs specifically, but that was no longer part of the ordinance by 2011.

Most of the Hunt Reservoir area within North Kingstown is covered by the new, larger wellhead protection areas, but there are some parts that are not. (See the green blob to the left. The purple lines are the wellhead protection areas. Find the larger map here, or go check out the fabulous RI DEM mapping facility.) This leaves a strip along the East Greenwich border north of South Road and west of Route 2, and another blob that stretches under the Tarbox dealership across Route 4 to surround Delano Drive on the other side. Those pieces of the Hunt reservoir area will be part of the groundwater overlay area protecting the recharge area, a slighly lower level of protection than the wellhead areas.

According to Water Department, grandfathered uses—and Route 4—make this leftover part of the Hunt reservoir area not a very likely location for new wells, and it is not on their list of places to develop new sites.

The other thing you can't help notice when reading the ordinance is paragraph (c)(3), that reads,

"Only those portions of a lot located in a groundwater protection zone shall be subject to the requirements of section 21-186."

Again, this is from the current groundwater ordinance, whose rewrite is still pending at the Town Council. This seems to be a direct contradiction of claims that the current ordinances say that the strictest zoning controls all of some lot that only partially lies across the border between two groundwater zones.

Update: This clause was added to the groundwater ordinance in 2014, by a town council headed by Liz Dolan, with Kerry McKay, Carol Hueston, Kevin Maloney, and Dick Welch also on board.

These are what is recorded in the current town ordinances. So far as I can tell, the proposed rewrite of the water ordinances increases the area of the town covered by the high levels of protection for our town's wells. (Really, check out the map. The new Annaquatucket wellhead protection area is huge and the others aren't small.) It also changes some restrictions to account for changes in technology (e.g. most dentists don't use photochemicals for X-rays any more) and the rest is mostly rewriting the ordinance for clarity.

There is nothing at all wrong with advocating for stronger groundwater protections than these, but a productive debate requires everyone to share the same facts. Though there are some who say otherwise, characterizing the proposal before the Town Council as a weakening of regulations does not seem to be supported by the text of the current and proposed ordinance, the maps from RI DEM, or the policy of the relevant town departments.


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