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A proposal in the General Assembly is designed to combat long-running water-shortage issues across the south of the state, but unanswered questions and entrenched interests make consideration of the bill, much less enactment, less than a sure thing in the last month of the legislative session.
House Bill 6099 was introduced in May by Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, D-Providence, who said he sponsored the legislation at the request of the city of Providence, the mayor’s office and the Providence Water Supply Board. It creates a new, quasi-public agency – the Ocean State Regional Water Authority – with the power “to acquire, lease, manage, sell, contract, develop, operate and maintain all properties, water and water supply systems.”
Water Supply Board Chairman Brett Smiley said the main purpose of the proposed regional water authority is to create a more efficient system of water distribution statewide.
“We have cheap, good, abundant fresh water in Rhode Island. The dilemma is that it’s not where it needs to be,” said Smiley. “Northern Rhode Island is water rich. Southern Rhode Island is water poor. … We’d have to build a couple of pipes to connect the systems.”
The Providence Water Supply Board, which sits in the middle of the state, is owned and operated by the city of Providence. The utility serves 600,000 people in four cities directly – Providence, North Providence, Johnston and Cranston – as well as wholesale customers, including the communities of Lincoln, East Providence and Warwick and the Bristol County and Kent County water authorities.
Smiley said the initial thinking is that the city of Providence would lease, not sell, the water supply infrastructure to the regional authority. Then the regional water authority would negotiate with localities that need to purchase the water.
While Smiley said consolidating the state’s more than 20 water systems makes sense in terms of efficiency, others question the basic details of the proposed regional water authority.
“I think the first question is a legal one, as to who has the authority to lease or sell Providence water,” said Rep. John Lombardi, D-Providence.