Public Health & Recreation

Protectors of Almy Pond Make Progress Toward Cleaner Water

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Almy Pond is frequently cited as one of the most polluted freshwater ponds in Rhode Island, with the Department of Environmental Management issuing annual no-contact orders. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

NEWPORT, R.I. — Jameson Chace often has to suit up in protective gear, gloves, and goggles before he gets in his canoe to take water samples from Almy Pond.

“I take the advisories very carefully,” he said, referring to the no-contact warnings that are frequently posted at the impaired pond to protect people from the harms it harbors.

Almy Pond is frequently cited as one of the most contaminated freshwater bodies in the state, and Chace, who is a professor of biology and biomedical sciences at Salve Regina University, has been testing it for a few years now.

Chace’s monitoring is part of a larger effort to clean up Almy Pond. The city of Newport and its partners  — an informal coalition of local residents, academics, and nonprofits called the “Almy Pond Protectors” — have taken several big steps toward improving water quality, but mitigating a confluence of contamination sources and years of pollution will take time to reverse, Chace said.

Chace got involved with the project after contamination led to several closures at a beach club near the pond.

“It’s makes sense that when you have a pollution problem at your doorstep, that you look upstream and say, ‘Well, where’s this coming from?’” he said. Almy Pond happened to be what was up the gradient.

As recently as last summer, toxic algal blooms, caused by cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, covered the ponds surface. The algae, like its name suggests, is a bright, bluish-green color.

Beyond looking sickly, it can cause irritation if it comes into contact with skin or eyes.

If ingested, the water can also cause stomach aches or, more rarely, fever and liver and nerve damage, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Children and pets are most vulnerable because they are the most likely to swallow contaminated water, a DEM memo telling residents to look out for the algae warned.

Although the pond has rarely been used for swimming, Chace said it is a popular place to walk around and kayak, something locals avoid doing when advised not touch the water.

On top of the toll the pond’s health takes on its human neighbors, the algae also deprive the pond of oxygen, something Chace and his students are also monitoring. Although they aren’t counting fish populations in the pond, low oxygen levels are likely making it an inhospitable place for fish and a dry hunting ground for the birds that would usually make the pond’s edges home, he said.

When Chace canoes on the pond to take his water samples, he does see red-winged blackbirds, black-crowned night herons, and a pair of swans nesting. “So, there’s sort of the wildlife. It’s there. But we’re not doing it any favors, that’s for sure,” he said.

Chace noted it would be a great pond for ospreys, “but there’s no fish worth catching in the pond for them.”

orange barriers line a field
The city of Newport tore up much of Sprouting Rock Road as part of a meadow restoration project. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

The pond’s low oxygen levels and algal blooms are caused by the large amount of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, entering the water. The city has already invested in improving its stormwater management system, which it found was the biggest culprit in bringing contaminants into the pond.

After receiving a $250,000 matching grant from DEM to implement stormwater management best practices, a study commissioned by the city showed that levels of overall phosphorus and dissolved phosphorus dropped by 32% and 67%, respectively, from 2013 to 2018.

Still, DEM has issued advisories for the pond every year for the past seven.

Chace said the biggest nutrient source now is likely runoff from treated lawns and roads that carry nutrients straight to the pond without being filtered through vegetation and the earth, like they would in an area with more greenery and less impermeable surfaces.

In 2021, two biochar socks were installed around the pond’s edges to try to catch and clean some of that runoff before it reaches the water. The socks are filled with charcoal and when water moves through them, they remove contaminants like a filter.

Since then, the nutrient levels in the pond have stayed about the same.

“Nothing has gotten better. Nothing’s really gotten worse,” Chace said. “In all the time we’ve been sampling, it’s been pretty consistent.”

That’s to be expected because the nutrients go through a cycle.

They enter the pond through runoff from someone’s treated lawn or left-behind dog waste. The increased nutrients cause an algal bloom. The algae eventually die, possibly in the cold winter weather, and settle at the bottom of the pond, leaving behind nutrients that will get stirred up again in the spring.

“Even if, let’s just say, everybody in the entire watershed stopped, today, putting fertilizer on their lawn and they always picked up all their dog material,” Chace said, “the nitrate, the phosphate would be deep in those sediments, and that would just take time to slowly get that to come out of the pond.”

Aside from the nutrients, the pond has also tested for E. coli, probably in part due to abandoned dog waste and visiting geese, although the quantities he is seeing may also point to human sewage leaking in through a faulty tie-in somewhere in the wastewater system, Chace said.

That contamination causing E. coli readings likely “makes its way into the system through holes, cracks, or faulty connections as well as through roof drain downspouts, storm drain cross-connections, and holes in maintenance covers,” according to Tom Shevlin, Newport’s communication officer, and is not by direct illicit connection to the pond.

The city is working on the issues across the city, he noted, and specifically added a sand filter to the system along the southern roadway, near the pond.

Although the process of solving the problem can feel drawn out, Chace said partnerships that have formed to tackle it are encouraging — and the most likely way to get something accomplished at Almy and other sites around the state.

“Almy Pond is getting a lot of attention right now because it happens to be getting these [annual] advisories,” he said, “It doesn’t mean that the pond near somebody else isn’t next on the list.”

It’s true that Almy Pond faces a lot of the same problems causing contamination issues for Rhode Island’s other freshwater bodies.

“Many ponds have one or two factors” that can start trouble, said Elizabeth Herron, program director for the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch, “but Almy Pond is getting hit from all sides.”

The pond is in a densely developed area, where there are more lawns and more impermeable surfaces introducing unfiltered water. “The same things that keep our lawns nice and green, keep our ponds nice and green as well,” Herron said.

a shallow dip with stones at one end
To remove contaminants before they enter the pond, the meadow project implements green stormwater infrastructure that uses vegetation to filter runoff. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

Although a freshwater pond, Almy lies close to the ocean, and likely gets hit with some salt water, especially during bad storms, she said. That introduces phosphorus — a common saltwater nutrient — into the mix, which can promote algal growth. There are also some new studies that suggest increased salt levels in fresh water could also encourage algae.

Almy Pond is also shallow, which Herron explained means sun reaches all the way to its bottom, making it an environment where algae thrive.

All these factors together intensify Almy’s issues, she said, and increase the need for people to step in and address the problem.

“Any time we are on land, we’re in a watershed,” Herron said. “We have to play an active role.”

The coalition of groups that formed to help improve the water quality of the pond reached an important milestone this year with the completion of a meadow restoration project, something that had long been advocated for, according to Alex Chuman, conservation director for the Aquidneck Land Trust (ALT).

“it’s just one of those things that’s nice to see that is planned out, and as funding becomes available, it can happen,” he said. ALT holds the conservation easement on the city property where the project took place.

Earlier this year, the city finished tearing up the horseshoe of Spouting Rock Road, which was once meant to host a development but has sat vacant for years, channeling runoff into the pond.

Paid for by a $180,990 grant from the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, the project included replacing the pavement with native grasses and installing green stormwater infrastructure.

“Taking [most of Spouting Rock Road] offline is the best approach for stormwater management, but not feasible for roads people are using,” Save The Bay’s director of habitat restoration, Wenley Ferguson, told ecoRI News. Save The Bay is another member of the informal Almy Pond Protectors coalition.

“It can be open space and it can be vegetated. It’s more than just a stormwater project,” she added.

Walking through the project, a lot of green is already pushing through where the pavement on Spouting Rock Drive once laid. In addition to ripping out asphalt and seeding grass, the city improved the drainage at the edge of where the road now ends.

The new drainage system uses the curve of existing road to funnel water into rock, sediment, and newly planted vegetation, in the hopes that when the runoff eventually it gets to the pond, the water has been filtered of the harmful nutrients and contaminants that cause algal blooms.

The project is unusual, Shevlin noted. “You don’t normally talk about taking the road away,” he said.

ecoRI News visited the site the day after a rainy deluge, and although a little bit of mud revealed deer tracks on the property, the new meadow was already showing it could act as a sponge and barrier for the pond.

“It’s got the opportunity to be a really great filter for water coming on that part of the watershed down towards the pond,” Chace said.

Time and testing will tell, and there is always more work to do.

Almy Pond is one of several Aquidneck Island freshwater bodies that is impaired, and there is only so much budget and time to implement changes.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for stormwater management in the Almy Pond watershed,” Ferguson said, “and all watersheds around the bay.”

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  1. Every house surrounding Almy Pond needs to be tested for sewerage outflow. I expect several older houses are still on cess pool tanks or leaching fields, and are not connected to the city sewerage system. Yellow dye could be put into every house toilet to determine if there is leakage into the pond. I expect surface runoff is only part of the pond pollution.

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