Rhode Island has identified 236 public beach access points along about 400 miles of Atlantic Ocean and Narragansett Bay waters. The Rhode Island Department of Health is responsible for beachwater monitoring and water quality notifications.
Seaweed Harvesting and Ultraviolet Stormwater Treatment at Easton's Beach
In the summer of 2009, Easton's Beach in Newport County began using a seaweed harvester to remove excess seaweed from the beach in an effort to improve beach aesthetics and beachwater quality. In 2011, 800 tons of seaweed were removed. Beachwater quality did improve after seaweed harvesting began. In 2008, despite low precipitation, 32% of samples taken at this beach exceeded water quality standards for fecal indicator bacteria. There was more rain in 2009 than in 2008, yet the percentage of samples exceeding standards dropped to 20%. (Note that while piles of seaweed on the beach can contribute to poor beachwater quality, these piles may have a role to play in the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems at the beach, and their removal can have detrimental effects on local flora and fauna. Removal of seaweed from Easton's Beach went through a rigorous permitting process from the Coastal Resource Management Council, an entity whose primary responsibility is the preservation, protection, development, and, where possible, the restoration of the state's coastal areas.)
Another undertaking to improve beachwater quality at Easton's Beach was the installation of a $6 million ultraviolet treatment system for destroying bacteria in stormwater discharges to the beach from Easton's Moat. The ultraviolet device began operation before the 2011 beach season; as part of the overall project, a storm drain was also relocated, but this did not occur until August 2011. The treatment system is activated when there is more than 0.25 inch of rain in a 24-hour period. In 2011, all samples of stormwater entering the treatment system exceeded water quality standards, and all samples of effluent from the system met standards. However, water quality testing downstream of the ultraviolet system revealed that another source of bacterial contamination between the treatment device and the outfall to the ocean is impacting Easton's Beach, and further work is being conducted to find and eliminate sources of contamination there.
Green Infrastructure and Sewage Overflow Reductions at Bristol Town Beach
Bristol Town Beach in Colt State Park has implemented a number of changes to improve beachwater quality, most of which make use of green infrastructure techniques that allow stormwater to filter into the ground instead of running off into the ocean. Six catch basins connected to bioswales have been installed to intercept runoff from the park before it reaches the beach. Rainwater is filtered mechanically in the catch basins, then further filtered by vegetation in the bioswales. The bioswales also significantly slow down the flow of rainwater, preventing surges of stormwater that may carry bacteria and other contamination to the beach. Also, the storm drain whose outfall is at the beach has been opened and restored so that when there is stormwater flow from urban areas upstream of the beach, it follows a slow and winding path. This helps clean the water carried to the ocean and allows time for some infiltration into the soil. The park's parking lot has been resurfaced with permeable pavers, and bioretention swales and specialized vegetation have been installed around the parking lot to absorb and filter any stormwater that does run off. In addition, there are plans to upgrade the sewage treatment plant near this beach and install underground tanks that will store rainwater during heavy storms. Currently, the sewage treatment plant is overwhelmed during heavy rainfall, resulting in overflows of untreated or partially treated sewage. With the modifications, rainwater will be stored and released slowly to the sewage treatment plant when rainfall is not heavy.
The parking lot at Bristol Town Beach in Colt State Park exemplifies green infrastructure. (Walter Burke)
Urban Beach Initiative
All of the beaches north of Conimicut Point in Warwick and Nayatt Point in Barrington have been unlicensed since 1999 because of ongoing water quality issues. Closures and advisories are never issued at these beaches because only licensed beaches are considered to be "open." However, the state specifically discourages swimming and other full-body water-contact activities north of Conimicut Point and urges people to refrain from any contact with water north of Conimicut Point for at least three days after heavy rainfall.
The Urban Beach Initiative was launched in 2010 in part to determine if there are areas in the upper Narragansett Bay that are safe for swimming. The state health department collected water samples at three locations in this area in 2011 as part of the initiative, and Save the Bay collected water samples at two additional locations. More than 20% of samples exceeded water quality standards at all five locations.
The Urban Beach Initiative and the partnership with Save the Bay have continued into the 2012 beach season. These efforts include working with EPA to provide dive specialists to survey underwater hazards and conditions. Now that the Providence Tunnel Project is complete and combined-sewer overflows are reduced, the state hopes that future testing will show that water quality has improved and can support swimming.
What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?
In 2011, Rhode Island reported 236 coastal beaches. Of these, 17 (7%) were assigned a monitoring frequency of more than once a week, 2 (<1%) a frequency of once a week, 1 (<1%) three times a month, 11 (5%) every other week, and 42 (18%) once a month; 163 (69%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency.
In 2011, 7% of all reported beach monitoring samples exceeded the state's daily maximum bacterial standard of 104 colonies/100 ml. The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the state standard in 2011 were Conimicut Point Beach (23%), Oakland Beach (17%), and Goddard Memorial State Park (16%) in Kent County; and Easton's Beach (14%) and Atlantic Beach Club (14%) in Newport County. Beaches in Kent County had the highest exceedance rate of the state standard in 2011 (16%), followed by Bristol (8%), Newport (8%), and Washington (3%) counties. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and samples taken outside the official beach season, if any. Locations monitored as part of the Urban Beach Initiative are not included in NRDC's analysis, as they are not considered to be bathing beaches.
* Please note that only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2007-2011 are included in the bar chart.
What Are Rhode Island's Sampling Practices?
The regular monitoring season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. In 2011, the city of Newport again teamed with a local Aquidneck Island volunteer organization, Clean Ocean Access, to continue sampling Easton's Beach during the off-season when surfers utilize the beach area. Clean Ocean Access volunteers collect samples year-round, and the city of Newport pays for analysis. Other volunteer groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, assist with sampling efforts throughout the year as well.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and/or Department of Health determine sampling practices, locations, standards, and notification protocols and practices throughout the state. Samples are collected just below the surface in water that is approximately 3 feet deep. The water quality at all licensed marine beaches in the state is monitored. High priority for more frequent monitoring is given to beaches with direct known sources of pollution (stormwater outfalls, septic/sewer connections, population density, nearby sewer plants) and high usage, and to facilities that have exhibited poor water quality in the past.
Monitors focus on areas of greatest concern and aim to collect samples when high bacteria counts are most likely to be present. The number of samples collected on a beach depends on the length of coastline and the presence of physical barriers to circulation (jetties, groins, etc.) that can trap bacterial contaminants near the shore. If a beach is closed or placed under advisory, sampling is conducted daily until the water quality meets standards and the beach is reopened. Extensive wet-weather sampling is conducted to determine the reopening schedule for beaches under preemptive rainfall advisories. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found or after heavy rainfall will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling schedule did not increase after an exceedance was found or after heavy rainfall.
How Many Beach Closings and Advisories Were Issued in 2011?
Total closing/advisory days for 37 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less increased 4% to 74 days in 2011 from 71 days in 2010. For prior years, there were 178 days in 2009, 124 days in 2008, 86 days in 2007, 256 days in 2006, and 57 days in 2005. There were no extended or permanent events in 2011. Extended events are those in effect more than six weeks but not more than 13 consecutive weeks; permanent events are in effect for more than 13 consecutive weeks. All closing and advisory days for events lasting six weeks or less in 2011 were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels.
Because of elevated fecal indicator bacteria levels, King Park Beach in Newport was closed to swimming from 2006 to 2010. After Newport made improvements to the combined sewage overflow system located at Wellington Avenue, water quality analysis confirmed the park was suitable for swimming, and King Park Beach was relicensed for the 2011 beach season.
How Does Rhode Island Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?
Rhode Island issues both beach closings (for bacterial contamination) and advisories (due to rain). The state's coastal bathing water standard is a single-sample maximum of 104 cfu/100 ml of enterococcus. No geometric mean standard is applied when determining whether to issue a beach closing.
Typically, if sampling results exceed the standard, a beach is closed. However, the state health department considers several environmental factors before deciding whether to close a beach because of bacterial contamination, including the presence of wildlife, seaweed, the number of tides since the sample was collected, the history of sample results for that beach, and rainfall. On rare occasions, if environmental factors do not suggest that fecal contamination is likely, the beach may remain open while it is resampled.
If a known sewage discharge occurs in close proximity to a beach, officials immediately close the beach without waiting for sampling results to confirm contamination. Scarborough Beach and Easton's Beach have preemptive rainfall standards and are closed when there is more than 1 inch of rainfall in a 24-hour period. Easton's Beach reopens within 12 hours of cessation of heavy rain. These preemptive closure protocols are proving to be effective, and the beach program is developing additional closure evaluations based on rainfall. The beach monitoring program generally recommends no water contact for three days after heavy rainfall.
Rhode Island 2011 Monitoring Results and Notice and Advisory Days
||Assigned Monitoring Frequency
||% of samples exceeding state standards
||Closing or Advisory days