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?