2017-03-23 / Around Town

Newport’s Water System Upgraded

By Bob Rulli

Work continues this week on improvements to the water distribution system within the city of Newport. A $3.5 million improvement project on Eustis Avenue, from Memorial Boulevard to Ellery Street, will include installation of large diameter water mains intended to improve the existing distribution system. These and other improvements are being made to a system that was originally “turned on” in 1878.

The drinking water from the public water supply on Aquidneck Island is treated at one of two water treatment plants owned by Newport. Residents in Newport, Middletown, portions of Portsmouth and Naval Station Newport receive their water from Newport’s Department of Utilities through the Water Division. Both the Water Division and the Water Pollution Control Authority are overseen by the director of utilities, Julia A. Forgue.

Drinking water comes from nine surface reservoirs. Seven are located on Aquidneck Island, and one each are in Tiverton and Little Compton. They have a combined capacity of 3.9 billion gallons of usable water.

“[It is] the most complex system in Rhode Island and perhaps in all of New England,” Forgue said at a recent Alliance for Livable Newport forum.

The reservoirs are man-made, shallow ponds that are supplied by storm water. This complicates how “raw” water is treated and distributed as “finished water,” with organics, primarily phosphorus, having the greatest impact on raw water quality. Forgue said that because none of the nine reservoirs are in “protected, forested watersheds such as the Scituate Reservoir, the Water Division starts with varying levels of raw water quality, particularly in the warm weather months.”

The developed watersheds surrounding the reservoirs increase the likelihood of greater amounts of contaminants entering the water supply. In an effort to mitigate some of those contaminants, the city purchased 350 acres of conservation easements in areas around the reservoirs. There is 16 million gallons of water treated daily at the refurbished Station 1 in Newport and at the newly constructed Lawton Valley Treatment Plant in Portsmouth, with treated water storage available in four water tanks in Middletown and Portsmouth. According to Forgue, both treatment plants provide conventional treatment and were the first in New England to feature advanced treatment capabilities that can be implemented in the summer months.

In 1802, the General Assembly approved the incorporation of the Newport Aqueduct Company, which was formed “for the purpose of bringing water from the town spring” (generally the location of the abandoned Citgo Station) to “places and parts of the city which seem proper.”

Advertisements appeared the following year in the Rhode Island Republican soliciting bids for “Pine Pitch Logs at least 12 feet in length and with a diameter of no less than 10 inches, which could be bored to create piping.” Records indicate that the Newport Aqueduct Company operated until approximately 1837.

Newport Native Gains Exclusive Rights

In a precursor to what today is referred to as Public Private Partnerships, the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island enacted legislation in 1876 that authorized Newport “to enter into an agreement with either an individual or a corporation to provide the city with water.”

Weeks later, Newport native George Norman, a successful water works contractor in Boston, entered into an agreement with the city for the exclusive right to lay pipes in roads and streets to provide water. In exchange, he signed a contract for 50 years without taxation, and he was given title to Easton’s Pond and the surrounding marshlands.

In 1877, Norman received a corporate charter to construct and own the city’s waterworks. Two years later, he transferred his personal holdings and joined prominent Newport residents William Sheffield, the former Congressman and U.S. Senator, and Norman Weaver, to form the Newport Water Works, which was subsequently acquired by the Newport Water Corporation in 1928.

Much of Newport’s current reservoir system was acquired from 1877 to 1928, most notably the three reservoirs owned in Portsmouth (Lawton Valley, St. Mary’s Pond and Sisson Pond), and two in Middletown (Nelson Pond and Gardiner Pond). The two ponds located off Aquidneck Island, Nonquit Pond in Tiverton and Watson Pond in Little Compton, were acquired in 1948 and 1967, respectively.

Newport Water Works also constructed the first modern treatment plant at the request of the city in 1910. Speaking recently at the same ALN forum, Robert Schultz III, deputy director of utility engineering, said, “The reservoir system is actually amazing for its design and the way it is laid out and how they are interconnected. But given the lack of depth of the ponds, there are also challenges.”

The average depth of the North/ South Ponds (Easton’s/Green End) when at capacity is only 10 feet. That lack of depth, particularly in warm water months, causes the formation of algae plums that can adversely affect water quality.

In 1939, the city acquired the Newport Water Corporation in the first case of a private company in Rhode Island taken over by a city or town through eminent domain. The assessed value was more than $3 million. The city took control of the system based on the doctrine of “public necessity,” or in other words, to ensure that safe drinking water is available.

That remains the case today with the introduction of state and federal water quality control standards such as the Safe Water Drinking Act raising the challenges in providing clean water. Those challenges are two-fold; one is treating and providing the finished water, and the second is maintaining and upgrading the aging infrastructure.

No portion of a Newport resident’s property taxes are directed to the Water Division. The Water Division is funded by an Enterprise Fund, with all expenditures for operations, capital improvements and debt service covered by the revenue earned through water rate and other charges, such as fire hydrants and private fire services. While Newport’s rates are among the highest in the state ($10.02 per 1,000 gallons), there has not been a residential rate increase since 2014, and Forgue said she does not expect another increase for at least one to two years.

Federal Aid Drying Up

A rate increase can only go into effect upon the approval of the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Water conservation efforts by the Water Division’s 14,500 retail users have been successful, but it also creates a situation where there is less revenue coming into the Water Division, even though there is continued need to pay for improvements and operate the system. Despite the increasing costs of complying with EPA standards, federal government grants for water system improvements have dried up.

“[I’m hopeful] that water quality is important to the Trump administration,” Forgue said.

The federal government continues contributing funds to the Drinking Water Revolving Fund, a low-interest loan administered by the state’s Clean Water Agency and the Department of Health. The Water Division borrowed $85 million from the fund to construct the Valley Water Treatment Plant and to modernize the Station 1 water treatment facility.

As development continues in the communities where reservoirs are located, the water supply will be under more pressure. Forgue said that work and cooperation on mitigating contamination of storm water in those towns is ongoing between the towns and the Water Division. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has prioritized the need to develop a comprehensive watershed protection plan both to ensure clean drinking water and to restore the aquatic environment in the reservoirs.

Did You Know

. A household of 2.5 consumes on average 65 gallons of water daily.

. The average depth of Newport’s nine reservoirs when at capacity is 10 feet.

. While the nine reservoirs have a capacity of 3.9 billion gallons, the Scituate Reservoir, which supplies Providence, has a capacity of 39.9 billion gallons, and the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies communities in Central Massachusetts, has a capacity of 412 billion gallons.

. The original Lawton Valley Water Treatment Plant was constructed in 1944.

. Newport owns 170 miles of water mains in the city and in Middletown.

. A fire hydrant costs $2,000.

. The level of raw turbidity (cloudiness) of Providence’s water is 0.5 NTU, while Newport’s is 15.6.

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