North Kingstown Reworks Decades-Old Ordinances to Protect Its Pristine Aquifer
October 11, 2021
NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Water, water everywhere and some of it to drink. This Washington County coastal suburb sits on a sole-source aquifer with some of the best drinking water in the state, and town officials are mindful of keeping it that way.
“Water is a finite resource in North Kingstown,” town water director Tim Cranston said. “And we are blessed with great resources.”
With that in mind, the town is nearing the completion of a years-long process to update its groundwater protection ordinances for the first time since 1999.
Most of the changes are administrative, and there are prohibitions against dentist office X-rays (which are now all digitized). The town has also seen more chemical-heavy nail salons open, something unaccounted for in its 22-year-old groundwater regulations.
Development has to be careful and controlled or else it risks damaging the town’s rich groundwater resources. Town officials are also adjusting the regulations to fall in line with state requirements, while also looking ahead to see what the future holds for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) regulations.
North Kingstown’s groundwater regulation changes are also meant to give more clarity in what is expected of new development, as previous requirements could be “foggy,” according to Cranston.
About 60 percent of Rhode Island gets its drinking water from the Scituate Reservoir, but those communities that don’t rely on private wells and other reservoirs fed by groundwater. There are only four sole-source aquifers statewide, including the Hunt-Annaquatucket-Pettaquamscutt that sits under much of North Kingstown and East Greenwich. The state’s other three sole-source aquifers are on Block Island and Conanicut Island and under much of southwest Rhode Island.
The Environmental Protection Agency defines a sole-source aquifer as one which supplies at least 50 percent of the drinking water consumed in the area overlying it. Federal guidelines also require that these areas have no alternative drinking water source(s) that could physically, legally, and economically supply water to all who depend on the aquifer for drinking water.
Underneath the western half of North Kingstown is a big “bathtub” made of granite and salt, explained Cranston. This bathtub is filled with gravel, sand, and dirt that holds and purifies water. This big trough is a leftover from the last ice age, when glaciers receded from the region. It is known as the Annaquatucket Reservoir.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management grades the Hunt-Annaquatucket-Pettaquamscutt aquifer with its highest classification. Only 21 percent of Rhode Island’s groundwater carries this classification.
Besides the Annaquatucket Reservoir, North Kingstown has limited options for water. The next nearest utility hookup is Kent County Water to the north. But buying and piping water from that utility isn’t feasible, according to Cranston. The difference in elevation and water pressure it would require far exceeds the current capacities of the town. Piping it in would require significantly more booster stations than the town currently has, and that’s not even including distribution within the town.
In bedroom communities like North Kingstown, it’s not extensive commercial development that could endanger the town’s groundwater supply.
“Some impacts from residential development are more like death by a thousand cuts,” said Cranston, noting the overuse of lawn fertilizers and chemicals and overwatering has two main threats to the health of the Annaquatucket Reservoir.
Taking steps to reduce stress on the aquifer is a key part of managing the town’s water supply.
North Kingstown has a twice-weekly lawn watering ordinance. It has a new penalty rate, so if a property owner uses more than 75,000 gallons in a quarter they get bumped up to a higher water rate. The town also has taken proactive measures to protect its water supply, as 23 percent of the land around the reservoir is conserved open space.
While the state has seen some dry years lately, according to Cranston, the drought of 2005 provided a real wake-up call for North Kingstown’s groundwater system. During peak times that year, the town used nearly 8 million gallons of water a day — compared to the barely 3 million it uses now during peak times.
It strained the infrastructure, said Cranston, as there is only so much water you can move around in 24 hours. Using too much water requires the town to use what it has in storage, inhibiting its ability to fight fires or impacting water pressure throughout the system and leading to contaminants getting in.
Changes to North Kingstown’s water ordinances originally started in 2018 under a previous water director. They first passed a groundwater committee and are now before the Planning Commission. Once approved by the Planning Commission, the proposed changes will move to the Town Council. Final approval is expected by the end of the year.
Unfortunately this is only half the story. While the bulk of the proposed ordinance is certainly positive, the Director of Water is seeking to weaken NK’s groundwater protection by removing the reservoirs from the highest of 2 tier protections. This would allow various hazardous commercial uses to develop over our reservoirs, which currently are not allowed. The town council appointed Groundwater Committee (including geologist and soil specialist) and our Conservation Committee have both unanimously voted to continue the highest tier protection for the town reservoirs. The Planning Commission over 3 meetings has failed to even discuss the merits of maintaining reservoir protection and is pushing forward with the Director of Waters proposed draft removing them. Meanwhile one third of the town’s wells are down due to Manganese, staining, and other contaminants, one being overdrawing sand into the system. Why would the guy we trust to provide safe drinking water be pushing to open up protected sources of drinking water for more hazardous development?