Rhode Island beach closures drop

R.I. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH data shows that, since 2009, state beach closures due to bacteria caused by heavy rainfall are on the decline. Rhode Island regularly tests state beaches for contamination. Above, Roger W. Wheeler State Beach. / COURTESY OFFICE OF GOV. GINA M. RAIMONDO

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island is having to close its beaches less due to elevated bacteria levels, according to new statistics from the state Department of Health.

The department attributes the drop to cities and towns upgrading their systems for handling storm water in recent years. Not only is that a plus for the environment, according to officials, it’s good for tourism and public recreation.

“Previously, [dirty] water was finding its way into beach water” more often, Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken said Monday.

A number of municipalities recognized the importance of protecting “beaches that people swim in frequently,” Wendelken said.

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Department statistics still show some beaches have been closed this summer and in recent summers, but not nearly as much as before.

The state regularly measures bacteria counts in water samples from Rhode Island’s beaches each year from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Beaches deemed at higher risk for contamination are tested more often.

Beaches are closed when the concentration of Enterocci bacteria in samples exceeds 60 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters. Bacteria counts at beaches typically rise after heavy rainfall, which can stress storm water systems, resulting in runoff and seepage into waterways.

However, the department found “the correlation between rainfall and beach closures appears to be changing since 2009.”

That’s when the first phase of the Narragansett Bay Commission’s “Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement Program” began.

In the program, a system of tunnels underneath Providence store sewer and storm water during heavy rainfall. Once a storm ends, the sewer and storm water goes through a wastewater treatment plant before entering Narragansett Bay. The second phase of the program went into operation in late 2014.

Meanwhile, numerous municipalities – including Barrington, Bristol, and Newport – have installed storm water improvements. And the city of Warwick has removed thousands of cesspools and installed municipal sewer connections in the Oakland Beach area.

The department said other municipalities are in the process of storm water projects.

The work appears to be making a difference.

In the 2003 beach season, for example, beach closure days – the combined count of days beaches are ordered closed – spiked at 503 on 16.3 inches of rainfall. In comparison, there were just 119 beach closure days during the 2013 beach season, despite having a greater rainfall of 20.4 inches.

Beach closures have continued to drop, averaging 63 days for the four beach seasons from 2014 through 2017, when rainfall averaged 9.2 inches, statistics show.

So far this season, 12 beaches had been closed for a total of 44 days, though Briar Point Beach in Coventry accounted for 14 of those closure days from June 29 to July 13, the department reported.

As of Monday, three beaches in Rhode Island remained closed: Goddard Park State Beach in Warwick, which was closed Friday; and Kingston’s Camp Beach and Larkin’s Pond Beach, both in Kingston and both closed Saturday.

Scott Blake is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Blake@pbn.com.