Land Use

Land Conservation Key to Protecting Aquidneck Island’s Water

Middletown Valley Park, behind Shaw’s on East Main Road in Middletown, filters stormwater runoff coming from nearby commercial and residential developments. (ALT)

On Aquidneck Island, there is no separation between humans, water, and land; all are connected, and all impact each other.

“Most of us, somehow, we’re all either impacting drinking water supplies, or we’re impacting coastal waters with whatever we do on our own property,” Chuck Allott, executive director of the Aquidneck Land Trust (ALT), said during a recent online presentation as part of the Middletown, R.I.-based Clean Ocean Access Land to Sea Speaker Series.

In the presentation, Allott and water-quality consultant Elizabeth Scott, former deputy chief for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s (DEM) Office of Water Resources, discussed how decisions people make regarding land use can impact water quality for everyone. They also highlighted a few local projects designed to improve water quality.

Allott noted that much of the land in the middle of Aquidneck Island affects drinking water supplies.

“The problem on Aquidneck Island is that we essentially live on top of our water supplies,” he said. “There are not sufficient buffers in place, and there haven’t been historically.”

The Newport Water System, which has some 15,000 connections across Aquidneck Island, is fed by nine reservoirs, seven of which are on the island. All seven island waterbodies — North and South Easton ponds (Middletown and Newport), Gardiner Pond (Middletown), Nelson Paradise Pond (Middletown), St. Mary’s Pond (Portsmouth), Sisson Pond (Portsmouth), and the Lawton Valley Reservoir (Portsmouth) — have been degraded with excess phosphorous and nitrogen and algae blooms haven become a consistent problem. All seven are listed on the state’s list of impaired waters.

With about 57 percent of Aquidneck Island developed in some way — residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial — the buildout of the island often comes in close contact with these waterways and others that drain into Narragansett Bay.

“If any of you have seen maps of, like, the Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts, that has miles of protected buffer around the reservoir,” Allott said. “That’s not us.”

To mitigate this, ALT proposes looking to open space as a prospective water purifying and buffering opportunity.

Allott pointed to properties such as Middletown Valley Park behind Shaw’s on East Main Road in Middletown. This property, which is adjacent to Bailey’s Brook, has been amended to act as a filter for stormwater runoff coming from nearby commercial and residential developments, and shows the need for land conservation.

“The land itself can be a filter,” Allott said. He noted that on this property the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and DEM installed a vegetated treatment system to divert stormwater runoff into an engineered wetland that cleans and treats that water before it dumps into Bailey’s Brook, a tributary within the island’s public drinking water supply system.

“So, the other reason that conserving land is important is so that we have places that we can put these types of systems,” Allott said.

Two aerial photos of the land that the 3.4-mile-long river cuts through — one from 1972 and one from 2020 — that show how much the area has changed over the years.

Another project being done by ALT, the town of Middletown, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Southeast New England Program (SNEP) is a pilot effort to ameliorate water issues at the Maidford River, a tributary to two of the Newport Water System’s reservoirs, by restoring riparian buffers and finding flood mitigation solutions.

“In many respects, the Maidford River is this small river with a really outsized impact on sensitive water resources,” said Scott, a member of the SNEP network. “Its water quality has high levels of bacteria, nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, as well as suspended solids.”

Scott presented two aerial photos of the land that the 3.4-mile-long river cuts through — one from 1972 and one from 2020 — that show how much the area has changed over the years.

“What’s quite remarkable is the amount of development that has occurred,” Scott said. “The watershed is still 40 percent in agricultural land use, but the residential coverage now represents about 27 percent of the land cover of the Maidford River watershed.”

To mitigate flooding and the damages wrought on the river from stormwater runoff, SNEP, ALT, and other partners are investigating a medley of solutions, including replacing culverts and possibly adding length and sinuosity to the river to slow the flow of water.

Scott also mentioned the need for restoring riparian buffers, the vegetated land that lines a waterway that can help clean and absorb stormwater before it reaches a waterbody.

“Now’s the time to really be looking at what needs to be done to ensure that these water supplies are available for the long term,” she said, “for generations to come.”

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