EAST PROVIDENCE — Though there remains some time to gain passage from the City Council, a proposal from the Department of Public Works to address East Providence’s failing water system is on the brink of being delayed for yet another year, according to the administrators charged with its management.
Public Works Director Steve Coutu and Water Superintendent Jim Marvel reiterated the urgency of the matter Thursday, April 10, in a follow-up discussion to their appearance before the Council at its meeting 10 days earlier.
The Council, after a near three-hour debate, voted by a 3-2 split not to go forward with the proposal, which would have seen the city seek upwards of $19 million in bond money to fix the aging system through the state’s Clean Water Finance Agency.
The Council could revisit the matter at its next scheduled meeting on Tuesday, April 15, or by calling a special session before the end of the month. The administrators say there needs to be a sense of desperation on the topic because the CWFA only goes out for bonds once a year and does so in April.
In order for the CWFA to seek funding on behalf of a municipality, it must be presented with a firm action plan, which the city has in the form of Mr. Coutu’s proposal, and the final backing of its elected authority, which of course it does not at the moment.
“You’re never going to get the (bond) money any cheaper,” Mr. Marvel explained. “The nice thing is the (CWFA) subsidizes the loan 25 percent based on your GOR (General Obligation Rating). This a perfect opportunity for the city to get this part of the project done.”
Since he arrived in city in 2011, Mr. Marvel said he has been working on the proposed project with Mr. Coutu. He said it didn’t gained much traction with the previous Council or City Manager, crediting Acting City Manager Paul Lemont with expediting the current plan.
That proposal, presented to the Council and public in various forms by Mr. Coutu three times, calls for the use of $6.5 million towards the rehabilitation of the water main in Watchemoket (lower Warren Avenue) District; $5 million towards the construction of a new storage tank in Kent Heights; $4.5 million towards a new transmission main pipe; and $1.5 million towards the building of a new chlorination station on the Kent Heights grounds. The remaining $2 million would be used to cover any potential cost overruns and/or to begin the process of replacing aged pipes in other areas of the city.
“What the (CWFA) needs now is plan of action, which we have, and a definitive way to fund it, which we don’t unless the Council votes again,” Mr. Coutu said.
Beyond its age, approaching six decades, the key culprit in the water system is the presence of DBPs or disinfectant byproducts, which form as a result of the chlorination process and increase the longer the water travels.
The city buys all its water from Providence. However, before it ever reaches East Providence, the water is transmitted to Cranston where it runs through a meter and a rudimentary chlorination station built almost 10 years ago as a temporary solution to a 2005 violation from the State Department of Health for the increased presence of bacteria. It then heads through a pipeline under Narragansett Bay to the Kent Heights station where it is distributed throughout the city.
“The water Providence sells us meets standards. Unfortunately, the water changes once it hits our system,” Mr. Marvel said. “Providence doesn’t have the problem within its system. The problem is in our system. It’s old. It wasn’t built to meet the new standards.”
Those standards, set forth mainly by the Department of Health, have put the city at risk of potentially being fined upwards of $5,000 per day if it continues to be in violation, which is expected.
“We know we’re going to be in violation next quarter. It depends on the samples, but they’re running high,” Mr. Marvel said.
Even if the Council reconsiders the proposal and allows it to go forward, the city must continue the process of replacing all of the old pipe in the system to avert any further violations and potential fines. The administrators said they could have presented a plan requesting $50 million or more to make all of the necessary repairs, but didn’t believe it would be fiscally prudent at this point or accepted politically.
“There’s going to need to be more in the next few years. That’s the reality of the situation. We believe this is the right place to start,” said Mr. Marvel.