- Tom Sgouros
Clean Water? Yes!
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
There is a rewrite of the town's groundwater ordinance before the town council, and it has stirred some controversy. Let's talk about where this rewrite came from, what it will do, and where the threat is to the clean water that people in North Kingstown drink.
First, where's the water? North Kingstown is among the only towns in the state that rely on groundwater for a municipal water supply. Lots of towns rely on surface waters, like the Providence Water Supply gets from the Scituate reservoir, or from individual wells. But North Kingstown has 11 municipal wells and that's what we drink. Three wells in the south end of town are currently offline due to naturally occurring manganese, at levels that are harmless but give the water a color. Another well in the north end of town is offline due to excessive sand, but is due back online soon.
Most of the western part of North Kingstown is on top of a large aquifer. The parts of the aquifer that are thick enough and porous enough to pull lots of water from are called the "groundwater reservoir" and they're indicated in green in the map. (I made this map with the fabulous Environmental Resource map that is part of the RI DEM GIS system, click here to check it out.)
The orangey color is the "groundwater recharge area" and the idea here is that a drop of rain (or something else) anywhere in that area will eventually make its way to the reservoir area. It may take a long time, maybe decades, but that's where it will go.
The purple lines outline the "wellhead protection areas" in town. These are places where a drop of water on the ground will eventually make its way into an existing well. (They extend over the edge of the recharge areas because they are made with different data.)
One other important point about the wells: because drawing too much water from the wells will reduce the flow of the rivers in town, DEM has told us we can only replace the wells we have already. Otherwise we might see the freshwater parts of the Hunt or Pettaquamscutt rivers dry up. Also, new wells must have a controlled perimeter, making a minimum lot size of 11-12 acres. So there are a limited number of places we can even contemplate digging a replacement well.
Second, how do we protect the water? The town defines groundwater "overlay" districts that provide additional zoning restrictions in the recharge areas and then slightly stricter restrictions in the wellhead protection areas. The groundwater ordinance, first enacted in 1974 and then updated in 1991, defines the restrictions on activities in those areas, and it says things like "no dentists' offices in wellhead protection areas" because they use dangerous chemicals to develop X-rays and that kind of thing. This is what is being rewritten.
The overlay areas and the regulations that they define are part of the solution, but they are not the only solution. Obviously, another part is the regular zoning requirements, to which the overlays add. For example, industrial uses in town are already forbidden from discharging anything into the ground besides "domestic sewage." This is in the zoning chapters of the town ordinances, section 21-111(b)(6) and is true for anywhere in town, not just the groundwater districts.
The town also regulates nitrogen from commercial and industrial septic systems, the only town in the state to do so, according to the Natural Resources department at the URI Cooperative Extension. The limits we set are 5mg/l of nitrate at the property boundary. This is a much stricter standard than the EPA-recommended limit of 10mg/l.
Beyond that, the town is currently prospecting for new well sites, either by seeking agreements with owners, or possibly to buy. The water department has identified a handful of properties large enough to site a well and the necessary perimeter, and is in negotiation with owners now.
Third, what changes does the new ordinance make? The groundwater ordinance is being rewritten for a number of reasons. One is simply that experience has shown that it is hard for people to interpret, and the water department fields lots of calls that are simply looking for interpretation of confusing language. Part of the rewrite just puts a bunch of requirements into a table format, for easy reference.
A second reason is that the DEM maps on which the groundwater districts are based have changed. New developments in hydrology have shown that the wellhead protection areas should be much larger than they were, and these new maps reflect those changes. They also changed their names a little bit, so the local regulations needed to change just to avoid confusion and the ordinance does that and references the new DEM definitions.
A third reason that demanded an update is that technology and markets have changed. For example, most dentists' offices use digital X-rays these days, so there are no photo chemicals involved any more. And on the flip side, there are nail salons now that use solvents and those weren't really a part of the commercial landscape when the original ordinance was written 30 years ago.
Probably the most important feature of the new ordinance is an attempt at "future-proofing." We know that technology will change and markets will change, so the new ordinance includes these clauses, to leave the door open to regulate uses and chemicals that we don't already know about:
(2) Any use that includes the use or storage of materials, chemicals, or petroleum products that pose a risk to the underlying groundwater must include groundwater contour information and the installation of groundwater monitoring wells. Predevelopment water quality data will be required and a monitoring plan for targeted constituents will be a condition of approval.
(3) Emerging contaminants of concern will be considered/regulated as health standards become available.
These are new additions, not modifications to old language, and will help the department keep up and protect our water despite the ever-changing nature of the world.
The new ordinance also adds a specific requirement to regulate nitrates for the septic systems serving new developments in town. Again, this uses the stricter town requirement over the more lenient EPA requirement.
Fourth, what about the two objections? There are two objections made to the proposed ordinance, that the protections of the groundwater reservoir are inadequate and that lots that are partially within some overlay zone should be regulated as if they are entirely within that zone. These were originally suggested by members of the town's groundwater commission, though the commission did approve the new ordinance.
The location of the groundwater reservoir is the area within which you can drill a well that is likely to produce the volume necessary to be a municipal well. But water from all over the recharge area flows (or oozes) into the reservoir. That is, the reservoir area records a fact about the composition of the earth way below the surface, but the recharge area records a fact about the surface, where we live, work, and build things. The recharge area deserves protection—and gets it in the new ordinance.
The problem with protecting the entire recharge area at the same level as the wellhead area is that there is quite a bit of the recharge area that cannot be a well because of other restrictions, like the perimeter requirement. Unnecessary restrictions are a route to legal liability for the town, so it would simply be too expensive to increase restrictions with no specific purpose (i.e. someone will sue). However, the hunt for new well sites is ongoing right now, and those sites will define new wellhead protection areas.
The other suggestion is that if a lot spans two different restriction regimes then the more restrictive should apply. For example, if a lot runs across the border between the recharge area and the wellhead protection area, the suggestion is that the more stringent protection should apply. Again, though, regulation demands a justification that can persuade a judge. The edge of a wellhead protection zone or a recharge zone is defined by hydrology and the imperative of keeping the water clean. The further lot edge is only an appeal to a possible margin of error, and this is not as readily defensible. Also, lots are subdivided every day and it would be challenging indeed to write a restriction that would prevent a subdivision to evade water regulations.
Last, what is the threat to our water? Finally, it is worth a moment to ask where are the real threats to the water we all drink. In truth, it seems that the most palpable threats to our water have nothing to do with possible commercial development in the recharge areas, or septic systems in wellhead protection zones, but are the pesticides and fertilizers in our homes, gardens, and lawns.
Pesticide contamination of a well is a permanent thing, that cannot be undone. Lots of popular pesticides will last for a long time in the soil, and many of them are carcinogens that can have significant health impacts at very small doses. Fertilizer overuse can result in unsafe levels of nitrate in the groundwater. Obviously the potential impact from a single household is small, but many popular products are used by a large number of households. With only a small area to treat for any home, overusage is common.
Unlike the commercial businesses whose activity might constitute a threat to the water, these home uses of chemicals are very lightly regulated. The state has a say in which products appear on shelves, and if you want to use pesticides commercially, DEM has a state licensing process. For individual homeowners, the amount of fertilizer and herbicide you spread on your lawn and how much insecticide you spray on your fruit is between you and Home Depot. Not to mention where you store them and how you dispose of them. Now that it is widely known how toxic chemicals behave, your conscience might be in that conversation, too, but town regulations are not.
What's the bottom line? At the end of the day, the Water Department's proposed rewrite of the groundwater regulations is motivated by changes in the rules, the maps, the laws, and the expectations citizens have of our town. It is not going to make it easier for developers to build, except in the sense that they will have an easier time reading the ordinance. Businesses that operate in the recharge area or the wellhead protection area will not be seeing changes in the regulation of their businesses, except that some may now be required to drill a monitoring well. Dangerous uses will still have to apply for special permits in the recharge areas and are banned altogether from the wellhead areas. The ordinance is not weakening the protection of drinking water in the town, and there are provisions—like the nitrate requirements or the future-proofing language that leaves the door open to new regulations—that strengthen it.
The information in this article was developed through conversations with staff at RI Dept of Environmental Management, from the Natural Resources Department at the URI Cooperative Extension, as well as the Water and Planning Departments of the Town of North Kingstown. John McGinn, chair of the town's Ground Water Committee, was kind enough to share a memo he wrote about the proposed changes. You can find links to drafts of the ordinance and various memos describing it in the Planning Commission archives. Also, did I mention the fabulous GIS mapping system? Open the map by clicking the link, then you can turn features on and off by clicking on the list to the right. There is a "Ground Water" box, and under that you can see the various features in the image above.