Editorial: Your Bristol County water supply is being left to rot

Posted 1/11/19

We lose irreplaceable things all the time. Old houses rot and fall down. Developers plow beautiful fields into cul de sacs and house lots. Beloved businesses grow tired and close their doors. These …

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Editorial: Your Bristol County water supply is being left to rot


We lose irreplaceable things all the time. Old houses rot and fall down. Developers plow beautiful fields into cul de sacs and house lots. Beloved businesses grow tired and close their doors. These can be sad but inevitable losses in a community.

Yet how often do we lose those things that sustain life for 50,000 people?

That’s the current path of the Bristol County Water Authority.

Most people don’t think about things like where their water comes from. They expect water to flow every time they turn the faucet handle, and they groan every three months when the exorbitant water bill arrives. Other than that, the water supply holds little to no interest.

Would they care to know that the local water authority, who almost nobody pays attention to anymore (local newspapers included), is abandoning a century-old water supply?

They should care.

Water authority leaders have made the decision to transition from water producers to water consumers. To be fair, they’ve been on that path for seven years, ever since they shut down the water treatment plant on Child Street and bought 100 percent of the region’s water from Providence.

First, a quick history lesson.

In the beginning, everyone had wells. When this region — mostly isolated on a peninsula surrounded by salt water — chose to invest in a public water supply, 19th-century private companies turned to large, freshwater aquifers in nearby Massachusetts. Through legal agreements, engineering and constructed spillways and pipes, large reservoirs in Rehoboth and Swansea fed the public water supply for Bristol County, R.I.

For a century, this system brought fresh water to the Kickemuit Reservoir in Warren, where it was cleaned, sanitized and pumped through pipes to the homes and businesses of this region. Aside from a large well and pumping station in Barrington, this was the region’s sole source of water.

Twenty years ago, the water authority completed a groundbreaking engineering feat, drilling a hole in the bedrock under the upper end of Narragansett Bay and lining it with a pipe to bring a new water supply to the region. Water began to flow from the Scituate Reservoir, into Providence, under the bay, into pipes in East Providence, and ultimately into Bristol County homes. For the first time in its history, Bristol County had two sources of water — water it produced from its own reservoir, and water it bought from Providence.

In the last five years, the water authority has decided to turn in a new direction. Claiming the Kickemuit Reservoir water is too dirty to clean and the treatment plant is too costly to ever revive, they’re shutting down the whole system. Instead of producing its own water again, the water authority wants to build another pipeline, so it can buy water from Pawtucket, in addition to Providence.

When it does, it will abandon all the systems that brought potable water to this region for more than 100 years. That process has already begun. As Warren resident Barry Lial can attest (he’s lived on a farm across the street from the Kickemuit Reservoir his entire life), the water authority has neglected the reservoir, the water supplies that feed it, the legal agreements that protect it, and the pipes, damns and spillways that support it.

They are letting it all go to rot.

And almost nobody cares.

Should they? Again, we think so.

We worry about the future — not five years from now, but 50 years from now. In five years, under the current plan, Bristol County will have redundant water supplies and two vendors to choose from. The water authority can shop for price, quality, or both, between Providence and Pawtucket.

Will that be the case 50 years from now? Will Providence and Pawtucket still be in the business of selling water? Will their supplies support their entire populations, plus the 50,000 people living here? What if they don’t?

Once lost, the local water supply can never be recovered. With legal agreements expired and protected watershed lands opened up to development, the sole natural water supply for this region will be tainted and polluted beyond repair. It will be lost forever.

When we stop and think about it, we can’t make any sense of it. It seems reckless and negligent to let a life-sustaining system rot away. But it seems nobody cares.

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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.