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Are Sewers Best Solution For Wickford? Resident Argues No

In this letter to the Town Council, Linda Piedra outlines her reasons for why the town should not try to install sewers in the area.

Wickford. Credit: NK Patch
Wickford. Credit: NK Patch

Written by Linda Piedra, who lives on Elam Street in Wickford.

No project especially one that could cost in excess of $14 million and requiring an estimated $400,000 in annual maintenance should be started without a needs analysis. What are the advantages of putting a low-pressure sewer system through a small part of the Wickford Harbor watershed? Will this really have a significant effect on the health of our waters, or is it intended mainly to facilitate growth in the Wickford Cove sub watershed, increasing the impervious surface cover and high-intensity land use in shoreline areas and further polluting the waters with runoff and increasing flood risk?

A needs assessment: More than a decade ago, Save the Bay, URI Cooperative Extension and North Kingstown cooperated in a scholarly study taking five years to complete which, among other things, compared the efficacy of a centralized sewer system with retrofitting existing septic systems in the Wickford Harbor watershed. They were found to be nearly equal. GIS technology was used to study the Wickford Harbor watershed and compare wastewater treatment options. Results showed that retrofitting ALL the onsite wastewater systems in the watershed (east of Post Road/Route 1 from Camp Avenue to Annaquatucket Road) with nitrogen removal technology would lower nitrogen loading by more than one third: nearly identical to results gained from extending a central sewer system throughout the same area. Retrofitting only Wickford Village would produce a considerably lesser result. The study found that:

  • A traditional sewer system could be beneficial to some areas of North Kingstown but is by no means the only solution. Alternative solutions – such as distributed or cluster systems – could be effective.
  • Better land use controls were necessary prior to the adoption of ANY wastewater management solutions, especially in the Wickford Cove sub watershed which was compromised by intense development. Restoring these shoreline areas was found to be a priority. A buffer zone of 200 feet from all surface waterbodies was identified, and the study recommended preventing new construction and removing impervious surfaces as much as possible to prevent pollution from runoff. (This is also a step recommended by FEMA to mitigate floods) See: Wastewater Planning Handbook, Mapping Onsite Treatment Needs, Pollution Risks, and Management Options Using GIS, University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension, Kingston, Rhode Island, February 2004 http://www.uri.edu/ce/wq/nemo/Publications/PDFs/WW.PlanningHandbook.pdf

The town began planning to provide sewers in areas designated for growth that were projected to have relatively low environmental effects outside of the critical watershed, such as the Post Road corridor and chose a decentralized approach for Wickford, because it cost less, would recharge the groundwater aquifer, reduce direct discharges of nutrients into poorly flushed coastal waters, and maintain the historic character of the town. These systems require appropriate design, installation, monitoring and maintenance.

R.I. DEM approves designs and inspects installations. It also has required replacement of all cesspools – working or not – within 200 feet of water in all of North Kingstown before Jan. 1, 2014. The town Water Department keeps a web-based database that tracks compliance with onsite wastewater treatment inspection and maintenance and generates postcard notices for non-compliance. Town and/or RIDEM can monitor these activities and issue letters and assess fines up to $500 per day.

The strategy is working: A case study by the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) in 2010 described North Kingstown’s progress in the following way: “Approximately 91 percent of the 9,700 wastewater treatment systems were currently in compliance (as of February 2010) with inspection and pumping requirements and all but a few of the alternative systems have maintenance contracts in place.” When to Consider Distributed Systems in an Urban and Suburban Context: Case Study: Wickford Village, Town of North Kingstown, Rhode Island (scroll down to select the Wickford study).

Is a low-pressure sewer system a better solution for Wickford Village than a decentralized approach? Unlike a gravity sewer where user maintenance is negligible, a low-pressure sewer relies on hundreds of small holding tanks with individual grinder pumps to grind sewage and pump it from the buildings to the sewer line, which will go uphill to Post Road. These pumps have a life expectancy of 5 to 10 years, cost $2,500 for the pump alone, will cost around $5,000 to install (on top of the estimated individual assessments of between $33,000 and  $67,000), need yearly maintenance and run on electricity – also needing installation. The basins typically hold 30 to 70 gallons of sewage – between a sixth and a tenth of the wastewater a household of four produces in a day. If the electricity goes out, no water can be used AT ALL. So pump users must provide their own generators. Hundreds of generators! The pump is also susceptible to blockage from grease, personal wipes, coffee grounds, sand, feminine products and so forth.

Since we live in an area that is prone to power outages from storm and flood, and we cannot count on everyone using the system to be respectful of the pumps, there is a huge probability that sewage will frequently make its way into basements, yards and public places with disastrous results. Many of the basements in the very old homes in the Wickford area have dirt floors. What kind of clean-up is required for them? Will we be preventing pollution to our ground and waters or making it worse?


Ken Proudfoot January 12, 2014 at 08:13 PM
How can we be a viable business friendly town WITHOUT sewers? The lack of sewers in town have always impeded developing a greater diversity of businesses and has created a real moratorium on attracting additional and much-needed restaurants and dining establishments. Putting aside for a moment the 100-year editorial issue of "unbearable" costs [see decades of editorials and news articles in back issues of the Standard Times], it is still amazing to me that a village with such a long history and multiple economic ups and down has never had visionary leadership to make the brave decision to install public sewers to improve overall public sanitation, protect our ground water, and promote economic development that depends on access to a modern sewage system. As you probably know, nearly 2,800 years ago (!) the Romans, without benefit of electricity or engines, were able to install sewers and a full water system. It was undoubtedly imperfect, but it was the most modern system in the world. We are only 2,800 years behind this ancient civilization!!! Yaaay for us! Amazing! A few excerpts of this history is found online in Wikipedia: "It is estimated that the first sewers of ancient Rome were built between 800 and 735 BC. Over time, the Romans expanded the network of sewers that ran through the city. Strabo, a Greek author who lived from about 60 BC to AD 24, admired the ingenuity of the Romans in his Geographica, writing: 'The sewers, covered with a vault of tightly fitted stones, have room in some places for hay wagons to drive through them. And the quantity of water brought into the city by aqueducts is so great that rivers, as it were, flow through the city and the sewers; almost every house has water tanks, and service pipes, and plentiful streams of water…' Around AD 100, direct connections of homes to sewers began, and the Romans completed most of the sewer system infrastructure. Sewers were laid throughout the city, serving public and some private latrines, and also served as dumping grounds for homes not directly connected to a sewer." If you need more information, please see the URI Library where they have a history of the water and sewer system of the Roman Empire, written by the Roman Empire's minister of the waterworks. BOTTOM LINE: How much longer should Wickford wait to catch up with our neighboring towns of East Greenwich and South Kingstown, as well as the long-gone Roman Empire?
Jeff Crawford January 13, 2014 at 07:44 AM
Ms. Piedra, thank you for the overview and history of the studies performed to compare septic upgrades to installation of a sewer system. However, I am not sure if your case against a sewer system is driven by science or by your ownership of a property in the village and possibly elsewhere in the Town. Since RIDEM has outlawed cesspools and galley systems (2 years ago), replacement ISDS system designs are driven by the area and soil type, proximity of the water table in that particular area and lot size availability. I for one would not like to pay for a nitrogen system and maintain it. Also, your article states that the average family of four is generating an estimated 300 +/- gallons of waste water daily? This sounds like a lot of waste to me and I am surprised that most ISDS systems can handle that daily loading year round. That's about 100,000 gallons of waste water annually. Are you including residents amounts who water their lawns?
Judy Tysmans January 13, 2014 at 08:30 AM
We own property in NK, but still live in NC. I worked on a water-quality CDC grant for several years, and worked closely with our water quality departments on county and state levels. I'm accustomed to looking at ponds, creeks and rivers in NC with foam on them, and the beach on a windy day sends gobs of suds flying along the sand. I can't speak well enough for the effectiveness of the water quality department in NK. Your water is clean, there is no evidence of pollution, and population is dense around the lovely harbor. I agree with Ms. Piedra's statement about a sewage system allowing increased density in development and increased traffic and pavement. We bought property in NK because we like it as it is. We respect the attention given by Tim Cranston and his team to the water quality, and the good outcomes of that focus. When you have success, why change it?
NK Edge January 15, 2014 at 03:37 PM
KP, I don't think that anyone is disputing that sewers would be the best solution to a very complex issue, however how the sewer system will be financed and maintained is the issue. Most Towns/Cities pay for the main line sewer installation as part of the annual budget. They do not charge individual property owners the fee to install town owned lines.

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