WESTERLY — Town officials agree that the quality of local waterways must be a focus of governmental effort, but are less clear on how to ensure fouled waters are improved.
The Public Works Committee, a group that provides advice to the Town Council, is expected to develop recommendations Monday. The recommendations could include whether to go forward with studying a proposed storm water utility — a mechanism supporters say would establish a stable source of money to be spent on improving the quality of water that runs from the ground and other surfaces into the Pawcatuck River, Little Narragansett Bay, Watch Hill Cove, Mastuxet Brook and Chapman Pond.
The committee discussed the proposed utility and the town’s current storm water practices during its meeting Thursday. Under a storm water utility, the town would develop a fee system to charge property owners for contributing to storm water, or the rain that runs off impervious surfaces such as rooftops, paved streets, driveways, highways, parking lots, packed gravel roads and other hard surfaces. That water flows into storm drains found on the side of roads and in parking lots.
Richard Smith, a committee member and chairman of the Board of Finance, said the town should conduct a detailed analysis of current practices before it devotes more time to a storm water utility. He recommended subjecting the current cost of storm water management, which officials say is about $910,000 per year, to the scrutiny of the town budget process for two years.
Under this scenario the cost of various storm water management efforts would appear as separate line items in the town budget. For instance, the cost of street sweeping, a storm water management practice, would appear as a line item that can be tracked annually.
The town’s current storm water ordinance and compliance with it should be reviewed along with the town’s storm water management plan, Smith said. Finally, GIS mapping of the storm water system should be completed.
Once these steps are taken, Smith said the town would be in position to decide whether additional steps should be taken to both manage and pay for storm water runoff.
“I think we’re on first base and trying to get to home without going to second and third,” Smith said, adding that an “enterprise fund” like the one that would be established by a storm water utility should be a last resort.
Town Manger Steven Hartford said he liked the approach described by Smith, but said further study of the feasibility of a storm water utility was also necessary.
“If some group doesn’t focus on what we need to do to get to a good policy decision for the future of clean water, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Hartford said.
Hartford noted that the state General Assembly has established a law allowing for the creation of storm water utilities and that similar utilities are established throughout other parts of the country.
“It’s clearly a trend. It’s considered by DEM as a best practice. For those reasons alone I don’t think the town should put its head in the sand and say, ‘We don’t want change.’ We have to have a full understanding as a community as to what the value is to the town,” Hartford said.
Town Councilor Christopher Duhamel, a member of the committee, also supported having the committee or a new group study storm water management. He said the study group should compile data that would enable an informed decision on the proposed utility.
Jean Gagnier, Public Works Committee chairman, also pushed for the development of data. He said the town currently commits about 1.2 percent of the total combined municipal and school budget to storm water management.
The proposed utility has successfully drawn attention to storm water management, Gagnier said, adding that the discussion had prompted him to read a state Department of Environmental Management report that outlines problems with the town’s waterways. The report, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load analysis, calls for steps to reduce bacteria levels in the lower Pawcatuck River, Little Narragansett Bay and Mastuxet Brook.
The federal Clean Water Act and Environmental Protection Agency mandates that states develop TMDL plans for waterways that do not meet water quality standards. TMDL refers to the maximum amount of pollutant a body of water can have and still safely meet water quality standards.
Test results contained in the report show elevated fecal coliform bacteria levels in the river and bay, and elevated coliform and Enterococci bacteria levels in the brook. These levels are not compatible with the designated intended uses for the waterways: swimming in all, and shellfish harvesting in Little Narragansett Bay. Harvesting shellfish is prohibited at all times in Little Narragansett Bay and Watch Hill Cove. The DEM report is available at www.dem.ri.gov/programs/benviron/water/quality/rest/pdfs/lnbw.pdf.
DEM secured funding for a preliminary storm water utility study, which included a proposed fee structure. The department said the town could qualify for an additional $20,000 grant to hire a consultant and continue studying the utility proposal. DEM said the second study would require creation of a “stakeholders” group to participate in the study. The study would include an analysis of the cost and legal issues related to starting a utility.
Town Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr., who has been the lead advocate of a storm water utility, said he favored the approach proposed by Smith regardless of whether it meant forfeiting the town’s chance at the $20,000 grant.
Committee member Jack Armstrong said the town must determine whether the best “business practice” is to reorganize its current storm water management practices or implementing a storm water utility.
The Public Works Committee is scheduled to meet Monday at 5:30 p.m. in the town manager’s conference room at Town Hall.