North Kingstown Residents Worry About Impact of Increased Development on Town’s Groundwater Supply
January 17, 2022
NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The town with some of the best drinking water in the state may be flushing it down the drain, according to a group of concerned residents.
The Town Council has OK’d a slew of new commercial development and apartment buildings in recent years, and some residents are concerned changes to groundwater and development rules will permanently damage the town’s water supply.
“Water is getting in the way of development and town officials want to see development move forward,” said Rick Thompson, a local resident and former Town Council candidate.
North Kingstown sources and pumps all its tap water within town limits. Most residents in the state get their water from either the Scituate Reservoir or a private well. But beneath North Kingstown is a big bathtub of granite, salt and other minerals left over from the last ice age. This bathtub purifies and funnels water into either the Hunt, Annaquatucket or Pettaquamscutt aquifers, from which the town pumps water into homes and businesses using its 11 wells.
Town law protects the aquifers and their associated recharge areas by limiting where development is allowed. But Thompson and his fellow residents claim the town is downgrading protection for these areas against the will of the Ground Water Committee. Recent projects approved by the town, such as apartments near Rolling Greens Golf Course and Wickford Junction, go against density requirements in groundwater ordinances, according to concerned residents.
But water department director Tim Cranston isn’t concerned. “I would not say so, most [of the protection areas] are about the same size,” he said. The water department hasn’t downgraded well protections, according to Cranston, but it has eliminated non-community wells per advice from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and redrawn the recharge areas to map DEM’s designations.
Cranston said his chief concern isn’t the impact of density on the town’s water supply, but lawn care.
“It’s really about that waste of water on lawns that taxes our distribution system,” he said.
North Kingstown restricts lawn watering during the summer to preserve water usage. On any given day the town uses between 2 million and 3 million gallons of water from its pumping system. Without lawn restrictions during the summer, on peak days water usage could rise to 7 million or 8 million gallons a day, and, according to Cranston, that is mostly due to lawn watering.
But some residents still feel shut out of the process.
“I am worried about [the Planning Commission and Town Council] … they do not have public comment on every meeting,” said Kathleen Guarino, a local resident and a member of the Ground Water Committee. “It feels like they are trying to discourage public comments made on the record.”
Kevin Maloney said development has been a creeping concern of his for years, as the town approves more projects that encroach on the water supply. The Wickford Junction Apartments project is currently under review and would place three apartment buildings, a total of 152 units, in between the train station and Walmart, with effluent pumped into a centralized on-site water treatment system already in place. The leach fields from this system partially sit over a groundwater reservoir, and is about 100 feet from a wellhead protection area.
“Allowing 152 residential complex units to be built on the area farthest from our drinking water source, piping across the development to a concentrated point partially over the reservoir, is totally irresponsible,” Maloney wrote to the Planning Commission.
Homeowners abutting the leach field have complained about a smell of raw sewage from the septic drain site. Mahoney said the developer has been negligent in the maintenance of the leach field, allowing brush to grow over the property and refusing to replace manhole covers and broken vents.
The problem, according to the water department, is that the field isn’t running at its intended capacity. The septic system was approved to handle far more development than was in place at the time.
“It’s supposed to be usable for up to 35,000 gallons a day,” Cranston said. “But it’s not doing that.”
Town Council President Greg Mancini, director and general counsel for BuildRI, a construction sector labor and management trade association, was unavailable for comment.
Next week the North Kingstown Town Council will vote on revised Groundwater Regulations. Being omitted are two key points which have protected the NK public drinking water supply for decades:
Developers want to build closer to groundwater recharge zones. All concerned should write the Town Council or show up at the meeting on Monday.
While appreciative of this article, it’s unfortunate that it barely touched on the main concern; which is the upcoming rewrite of the town’s groundwater ordinance in which our reservoirs (as currently drafted) will be removed from the top tier protection and downgraded to recharge status. Despite unanimous votes by the towns Groundwater and Conservation Committees to “maintain” these protections which have existed and have been unchallenged for decades; the Planning Committee and Water Director have sent a draft to the town council to downgrade the protection of our reservoirs. 11 commercial uses currently prohibited over our reservoirs like new car dealerships, machine shops, beauty shops, veterinary offices, kennels, healthcare and nursing, commercial washing of vehicles will be granted special use permits or administrative review and 3 uses currently requiring special use permits like medical offices, dental offices, and walk in clinics will be allowed by right.
DEM’s new mapping has almost doubled the protection areas around each existing well, far larger than originally thought. A good portion of the reservoirs currently fall under these wellhead protection areas. However despite current town discussion on relocation of some town wells in the near future; portions of the reservoir will become vulnerable to toxic and hazardous uses listed above. We all know how transmissible water is and how it doesn’t follow lines on a map. By the time the new wellhead protection mapping is drawn for new relocated wells, the damage will be done and the hazardous uses permitted in place. While Mr. Cranston states the protection area is about the same, that is due to larger existing WHPA’s and the fact they are removing the main drinking water source from hazardous use protection. We have already lost 1 reservoir and 3 of our 11 wells have been shut down due to naturally occurring contaminants. Why are we increasing density (11x density allowed for one development) and allowing hazardous uses for no other reason than make it easier for more development over the Hunt Reservoir which ½ the town is dependent on for its drinking water?
While NK has received awards for best tasting water in the State; portions of the town’s water is untreated while other portions require sodium hypochlorite and smell of chlorine.
My daughter lives in N.K. and she has fantastic drinking water! I expect others feel that same way. Hopefully, the powers to be will see the risk of negative influence if too much development of high intensity occurs. This is a cherished resource which cannot be regained once lost. People pay great taxes for the security and peace of mind on maintaining their water quality. Regroup, and vote intelligently on this most important issue, for the future of N. K. watersheds.
The pollution in Flint, Michigan was, in part, due to water being diverted from a polluted river. They began to resolve the problem by changing the public water drinking source.
If an underground aquifer, whose location can only be estimated, becomes contaminated with chemicals or human waste from a poorly maintained septic system – it cannot be fixed by turning a tap off.
Regulations in North Kingstown for Groundwater Protection Areas need to be strengthened – not weakened. What’s the harm in that? Isn’t clean water everyone’s top priority?
Attend next week’s NK Town Council meeting, email the staff (listed on the NK Town Website). Ask them to retain the highest level of protection of groundwater and well-head zones.
We all need to pay attention. Water is not a RED and BLUE issue.
RI has skyrocketing housing prices that are fundamentally a matter of scarcity. From an environmental perspective, apartments displace less green space than suburban sprawl, are more energy efficient, and are more amenable to walkable neighborhoods serviceable by mass transit instead of cars.
This feels like NIMBY’s exploiting environmental concerns to hurt the environment (and working class RIers hit by rising housing prices) by stopping more housing, which we desperately need, from being put specifically in their back yard. If water capacity really is an issue, Kingston should prioritize people over lawns and strengthen restrictions on lawns instead.
One thing the Town should consider is to step up enforcement of excessive water users throughout the community. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people watering their lawns during rain storms or rainy days because their automatic timing systems were not adjusted even when forecasts of significant rain were provided in advance. Also, sprinkler systems that run even on good days should be adjusted to water during early morning or evening hours. Less evaporation.