R.I. Environmental Projects Benefit from Federal Infrastructure Money
Dozens of organizations, including nonprofits, universities, and water authorities, have received federal funds for environmental investments
December 14, 2023
PROVIDENCE — De Soto Street is missing something.
In the city’s Olneyville neighborhood, De Soto is an unassuming dead-end street, lined with multifamily housing and sandwiched between two busier thoroughfares, Valley Street and Harris Avenue. It’s got sidewalks, it’s got street signs, it’s got telephone poles, it even has a new multiuse path that cuts along the Woonasquatucket River and behind Gotham Greens to connect the street’s dead end with Atwells Avenue.
So what’s missing? Stormwater infrastructure.
“De Soto Street is a little street, going along the river in Providence, that has no stormwater infrastructure whatsoever,” said Alicia Lehrer, executive director of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council (WRWC). “During rainstorms, the water just comes pouring down De Soto Street, eroding the riverbank as it enters the river.”
Stormwater abatement isn’t typically seen as a sexy policy; most people don’t think about where all that runoff goes after it rains. In undeveloped areas, rainwater is naturally absorbed into the ground, but in densely populated, highly developed states like Rhode Island, paved roads and parking lots prevent that from happening. If a street has stormwater infrastructure that directs the runoff, that water is probably going into a catch basin or storm drain that will eventually dump it into Narragansett Bay or a river.
If there isn’t stormwater infrastructure, like on De Soto Street, that water is going to find its way into the nearest body of water anyway and that’s a big problem. Stormwater runoff is one of the leading causes of pollution in Rhode Island waters.
Left untreated, runoff can add more sediment to the water, impairing the growth of aquatic plants and destroying local habitats for fish and other organisms. It can overload waterbodies with excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, leading to toxic algal blooms and lowering the amount of much-needed dissolved oxygen in the water, a growing problem around the state.
It can lead to beach and shellfish closures, as during rain events, runoff can wash bacteria and other pathogens, as well as common household hazardous waste like paint, motor oil and other automobile fluids, pesticides, and solvents, into recreational waters. It’s a health hazard, and people, pets, or wildlife that ingest polluted water, or diseased fish swimming in polluted waters, can get sick.
Stormwater management is going to become more important as urban rivers like the Woonasquatucket become more and more flood-prone in normal rain events as Rhode Island feels the intensifying effects of climate change.
But the waters, figuratively, might be receding. Since last year WRWC has received more than $1 million across three federal environmental grants to shore up the climate resilience of the river, engage local residents, and contain any future flood events. The statewide flooding of March 2010 saw the Woonasquatucket River swell 9 feet above its typical waterline.
The money is coming from President Biden’s two landmark appropriation bills: the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — more commonly known now as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) — passed in 2021 and the $891 billion Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), passed last year. The IRA has been heralded as the most significant piece of climate legislation approved by Congress ever, and the Biden administration earlier this year called it a “transformative law that is helping the United States meet its climate goals and strengthen energy security.”
“Our biggest focus is on flood resilience on the lower watershed, that’s a forefront issue,” WRWC’s Lehrer said. “In March 2010, we had that 100-year flood and it completely inundated [the river] for days and there was so much damage done. We just want to make sure we try to mitigate those effects as much as possible.”
Lehrer said WRWC is going to use the grant money to further endow a community engagement program, Nuevos Voices, an eight-month training program designed to recruit residents to become leaders in their own neighborhoods, and a new program called Climate Champions, which will train residents to determine what climate adaptations their neighborhoods need.
The council also received a $500,000 grant to design, permit, and build nature-based stormwater controls and other green infrastructure along the Woonasquatucket River’s Greenway.
“Our goal is to just take as many areas close to the river and improve them for their habitat and their ability to capture and treat stormwater,” Lehrer said.
The watershed council is one of dozens of organizations around the state, including state and municipal government, nonprofits, universities, and water authorities, that have received a federal fiscal largesse for serious environmental investments.
So what’s Rhode Island’s piece of that pie, and where is it going?
According to a fact sheet released by the Biden administration, $1.8 billion in funding from the BIL has been announced for Rhode Island, but most of that isn’t directly tied to the environment. About $1.4 billion of those federal dollars will be going toward transportation: roads, ports, bridges, airports, and public transit.
The IRA, which has money not only for grants but also tax credits and rebates to be collected on the back end, doesn’t have a similar figure available.
ecoRI News has identified $700 million combined to date in federal dollars so far from both the BIL and IRA to pay for Rhode Island environmental projects. The amount includes direct allocations to state agencies and their programs, as well as grants awarded to various local entities.
The projects encompass a variety of environmental issues, from coastal resiliency to public engagement and environmental justice, to replacing lead water service lines, to studying habitat impacts from sea level rise, to erosion control and electric buses.
Here’s a list of what has been confirmed or announced so far:
Excluding transportation infrastructure, the big winner will be the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund, programs run by the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. Lawmakers allocated a $28.5 million match to the Clean Drinking Water Fund to unlock $400 million in federal dollars for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.
So far the Clean Drinking Water Fund has received some $83 million in federal dollars for the fund, including $57 million earmarked for lead line service replacements. Meanwhile, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund has received $54 million in federal dollars. Both funds received their funding through BIL.
(The Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank also has an extra $5.5 million to help municipalities match funds to receive federal funding from BIL.)
But wait, there’s more. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns would be eligible for nearly $19 million in grants from BIL to address per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances in drinking water.
The state’s Office of Energy Resources is also walking away with a big chunk of federal change. The agency, which manages many of the state’s energy programs, is expected to net $93 million from the federal infrastructure laws, all of it for existing agency initiatives. That includes $32 million for home energy performance-based rebates, another $31.8 for energy efficiency upgrades in homes, and $23 million for electric charging infrastructure. Also included among its allocation is $3.2 million to update the State Energy Plan, the state’s guiding document on energy security, planning, and consumption.
Another big winner? The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. The state’s mass transit operator received $55.9 million from BIL to modernize its facilities, upgrade its fleet, and renovate the state’s only bus tunnel. That’s in addition to the $22 million received by the agency last year for electrifying its bus fleet on Aquidneck Island and to install more electric charging stations and $5 million to develop a road safety plan.
(Rhode Island is expected to gain $292 million in formula funding for transit from the infrastructure law over the next five years, but not all of the money has been allocated or announced yet.)
RIPTA isn’t the only one netting money to electrify buses; two Rhode Island school districts were awarded Clean School Bus program rebates. Cumberland’s Blackstone Valley Prep received a $9.48 million rebate for 24 electric school buses. Woonsocket, which bought one bus, received $395,000 in a rebate.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management said the agency was awarded a $3 million climate pollution reduction grant under the IRA to move Rhode Island toward carbon-neutrality by 2050. Michael Healey, DEM’s chief public affairs office, said, “The funds will allow us to directly engage communities, assist municipalities and small businesses, and promote workforce development in the green jobs of the future, all leading to healthier and more resilient communities.”
DEM is also getting some dollars kicked its way from the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s own IRA funding; $400,000 will be used to support the state’s chief resilience officer position for five years, according to Healey. The Coastal Resources Management Council will receive $330,000 from the IRA to develop a statewide coastal access plan.
Two towns received money to develop wastewater solutions. Glocester received a $465,000 BIL grant to develop a decentralized wastewater management entity. North Kingstown received $320,000 to identify failing septic systems in sensitive coastal areas and provide homeowners with incentives to upgrade existing septic systems to reduce their nitrogen loads.
The U.S. Department of Energy last month designated the Community College of Rhode Island as one of 17 designated Industrial Assessment Centers nationwide. The designation is meant to help CCRI conduct energy audits and expand renewable energy workforce training opportunities. The designation comes with a $1.8 million award from the department.
Three nonprofits are receiving $500,000 each in environmental justice grants from the EPA. Both the Childhood Lead Action Project and the Refugee Development Center were announced grant awards to focus on lead safety and poisoning, preventive home visits, public engagement, and leadership development.
The third nonprofit, The Nature Conservancy, plans to use its grant money on its tree equity program. It plans to plant up to 1,000 trees in green-bare Providence neighborhoods.
It’s not the only money the state has received for trees; Rhode Island has received nearly $8 million from the IRA for urban forests. That money includes $3 million for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services to support urban forest training assistance and to develop urban forestry action plans; $3 million to the Pawtucket Foundation to provide new trees and green infrastructure planting strips in key areas around the city; and $750,000 for East Providence to execute a citywide urban forestry plan. Another $1.2 million was awarded to DEM for a new urban forest planning program to support municipalities.
For a full list of BIL/IRA funding identified by ecoRI News, click here.