Bristol Parks & Rec director honored for helping save the bay


For years, the closing of Bristol Town Beach was almost the rule rather than an exception as stormwater runoff routinely carried enough pollution into the bay to make swimming unhealthy.

That all changed last summer. Previously averaging 15-20 beach closures a season, the town beach was shut down exactly zero times last year, a testament to the efforts of the Parks and Recreation Department and Save the Bay to capture storm water and treat it through natural means before it reaches the bay.

Save the Bay, the non-profit organization that serves as a watchdog for Narragansett Bay and its watersheds, is recognizing those efforts Wednesday, presenting Bristol Parks and Recreation Director Walter Burke with its annual Environmental Achievement Award.

"Save the Bay is one of the most influential, lifesaving organizations. To be honored by them is really amazing," Mr. Burke said.

The Town of Bristol embarked on the stormwater management project last year to prevent runoff from flowing directly into the bay. The project includes a series of "vegetated swales" throughout the town beach parking lot that capture rainwater, filtering bacteria and other pollution through the flowers and shrubs planted in them — which also serve to beautify the lot.

The town and Save the Bay also partnered on a bio retention pond along the northern boundary of the park. The project transformed a large storm drain serving neighborhoods off Hope Street north of the park — which previously fed directly into the bay, bringing bacteria, salt and sand with it — into a marshy area filled with plants that filter the water and feed on the bacteria. As with the parking lot swales, the bio retention pond serves a dual purpose of cleaning the water and beautifying the park.

"I didn't want to tuck this away behind a fence," Mr. Burke said of the bio retention system. "People need to know what they need to do with stormwater instead of sending it down a pipe and polluting the bay."

Funding for much of the project came from a bond taxpayers approved for street and drainage improvements and allocated through the Rhode Island Department of Management Clean Water Fund. The town also received grant funding from the state Department of Environmental Management.

The project has virtually eliminated stormwater pollution at the beach, and Mr. Burke's department has engaged in several other environmental projects to reduce Bristol's impact on the environment, including the restoration of Silver Creek near Mt. Hope High School.

"Walter has been a long-standing partner with Save the Bay. The stormwater project is the best example of that," said Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save the Bay. "It's a great example of how to use green infrastructure. The whole community in Bristol has been so focused on water quality."

The ability to bring the community together for such a common goal is part of why Save the Bay is honoring Mr. Burke, according to Wenley Ferguson, restoration coordinator for the organization. Mr. Burke has a knack for energizing the community behind projects like the Silver Creek restoration, for which he recruited Mt. Hope students to help. He's also brought together community groups and even children in the summer camp program to assist.

"As parks and recreation directors go, Walter is pretty unique. He takes the environmental concern of his job very seriously," Ms. Ferguson said. "When you have a partner like Walter who says, 'Yeah, we can do that,' that's how you get stuff done."

Save the Bay continues to work with Mr. Burke and the town on other stormwater projects throughout town, including a plan to capture runoff from Mt. Hope's parking lot and other asphalt surfaces, which may include vegetated swales like those near the town beach.

"The more we can do to manage stormwater before it gets to the creek, the better," Ms. Ferguson said, noting such projects not only mitigate pollution but also help with flood control during heavy rains.


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The Warren town planner did a similar project between Burr's Hill and the Town Beach. What did she get for it? A 50% off salary coupon. Good forever!

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