Block Island officials dismissive of URI study on low water supply

Updated 1 p.m.

A UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND water study is reporting that a lack of freshwater on Block Island may limit tourism, and commercial development due to a lack of capacity by the Block Island Water Co., which supplies the island's water district, noted with red dots on the map./COURTESY BLOCK ISLAND WATER COMPANY

NEW SHOREHAM – A University of Rhode Island study citing a lack of freshwater on Block Island that could impact the tourism season has raised the eyebrows of Block Island officials, who say the town could mitigate such a scenario.

“Almost all of the freshwater on Block Island comes from rain, but if the islanders pump more water than can be recharged by precipitation, they’re going to drain the bathtub. And that’s what’s happening now,” said Thomas Boving, URI professor of geosciences, who has studied aquifers and drinking water supplies in a dozen countries.

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Boving is studying how much water is being pumped from the Block Island Water Co.’s six wells, which he says provides half of Block Island’s water needs. He is also assessing how much water is available in area wells, how quickly they are recharged and how likely salt water could intrude the drinking water supply.

“During high demand days, they’re on the verge of pumping salt water,” he said. “In the aquifer, the available freshwater is floating on a layer of salt water, and if they drill too deep, they’ll be pumping salt water.”

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Boving believes the demand for water on Block Island is increasing due to the large number of tourists. On average, tourists who stay overnight use four to five times as much water as the typical resident, he said. During July and August, the water company can barely meet demand.

The assessment is a follow-up to a study conducted 20 years ago by URI Professor Anne Veeger, who concluded that water was available to meet the island’s needs. However, water demand, tourist visits, housing density and standard of living have all increased significantly since then.

Block Island’s water district includes commercial properties in the Old Harbor and New Harbor districts. Both districts are busy during the summer in part because those locations are where most island visitors arrive by boat.

John Breunig, superintendent of the Block Island Water Co., said the utility company is working to ensure the water supply will not become a problem by meeting with the New Shoreham Town Council and the Planning Board to formulate infrastructure plans to meet demand and upgrade its systems.

“The water company is currently looking at what the build-out capacity is within our boundaries and the feasibility of meeting future demand with new infrastructure,” said Breunig, who noted that commercial development and aging private wells within the water district could put more demand on the system. “This is a long-term planning issue – not an immediate concern for the next summer.”

Breunig said the URI “study is in its infancy, and the water company does not want to draw any conclusions early on until they have a chance to collect data and analyze it. The water company’s involvement is to provide data and monitor wells for URI.”

Lars Trodson, executive director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce, said, “We appreciate any effort to study and analyze the finite natural resources on Block Island, but it’s also worthwhile to remember that there are few communities as environmentally conscious as we are. There have been public conversations about how we can continue to protect and use responsibly our community resources, including water, so we look forward to seeing the results of this study. To speculate as to where these discussions will lead, however, is premature at this point.”

Steven Filippi, a member of the Block Island Tourism Council, agrees. He said the professor’s study and comments were not presented to the community, and their impact could be cataclysmic for tourism.

Filippi, who owns Ballards Inn, said a more-constructive approach would be to create mitigation measures to address any potential water supply issues.

“Any negative impacts on Block Island tourism will be devastating to the fabric of our community,” he said. “Considering there any many ways to minimize water usage without limiting tourism, most people know Mr. Boving’s wanton comments are reckless and irresponsible. It’s disappointing when people make headline-grabbing comments just to promote their own careers.”

Professor Boving did not immediately return a call seeking comment regarding the response from Block Island officials to his survey’s findings.

Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council, was less critical of the URI study. She said what it reports is not surprising, but it’s valuable for informing the pursuit of sustainable tourism on the island.

“This is something I have been talking about a long time in sustainable tourism, which is how do you keep tourism alive and well for the next 20 years,” she said. “It’s not about next summer. It’s about 20, 40, 60 years – having the resources, including water, power, all of the utilities, sewer, and the roads and transportation.”

Willi said that residents are aware of the study, and that the lack of freshwater could impact tourism. “The town is going to have to take a hard line when it comes to development,” she said. “We live on an island, with finite resources.”

Story was updated to add Jessica Willi’s comments.  

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @CassiusShuman.

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