“Big wins!” says DEM Director Janet Coit as Impairments in the Blackstone River, Mount Hope Bay, and Upper Narragansett Bay Have Been Removed from the Impaired Waters List


PROVIDENCE – The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is announcing today that the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has approved Rhode Island’s recommendations to remove impairments from parts of three waterbodies from USEPA’s List of Impaired Waters under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. As a result of stringent permitting and long-term investments in pollution abatement infrastructure and practices, segments of Upper Narragansett Bay, Mount Hope Bay, and the Blackstone River impairments now meet water quality standards. The announcement helps to underscore the importance of Question 2 – the Beach, Clean Water, Green Bond, which is on the special referendum ballot March 2. If approved by voters, Question 2 includes an investment of $15 million for drinking water and clean water. This would fund much-needed upgrades to drinking and wastewater treatment facilities, combined sewer overflow prevention, and stormwater management.


“Rhode Island’s recent federal Clean Water Act reporting approved by EPA highlights some big wins for clean water in our bays and rivers and the need to continue investing in protecting and restoring our waters!” said DEM Director Janet Coit.  “People in every community in our state can feel and enjoy the benefits of clean water and places that are accessible for public recreation. We owe it to our families to keep investing in quality of life – and we owe it to the generations to come who count on us to be good stewards of our beautiful state. Pay it forward by voting yes on Question 2 next Tuesday.”


Every state, tribe, and territory are required under the federal Clean Water Act to assess and report on the condition of the state’s waters. As part of the process, DEM identifies those surface waters that do not meet water quality criteria and require the development of a water quality restoration study and recommends waters or impairments that should be removed from the list because they meet water quality standards. Segments of three major Rhode Island waterbodies have demonstrated significant water quality improvements and therefore the impairments described below have been removed from the 2018-2020 impaired waters list.  As a result of stringent permitting and investments in pollution abatement infrastructure and practices, segments of Upper Narragansett Bay, Mt. Hope Bay, and the Blackstone River impairments have been delisted as they now meet water quality standards.  


Portions of Upper Narragansett Bay

The investments made to address combined sewer overflows from the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) sewer system has resulted in increased shellfish harvesting opportunities in the Upper Bay – in 2017 DEM lifted rainfall related shell fishing restrictions on one portion of Upper Narragansett Bay (Conditional Area B) that had been in place for over 70 years. Removal of this restriction due to improvement in water quality supported delisting the bacteria impairment from this area. Two areas of Upper Narragansett Bay were listed as impaired for bacteria in 1992, but restrictions to shell fishing use had already been in place since the 1940s. The completion of Phases I and II of the NBC combined sewer overflow (CSO) project eliminated a significant volume of combined sewage and stormwater that previously entered the Upper Narragansett Bay via the Providence River.  The resulting improvement in water quality has allowed the area previously identified as Conditional Area B by the DEM shell fishing program to operate on an approved status and Conditional Area A to close at 1.2” versus of 0.5” of rainfall since May 2017. DEM expects further improvements in water quality once Phase III of the CSO project is implemented. 


“EPA applauds the hard work done by Rhode Island DEM and their local partners to achieve the delisting and reopening of the Upper Narragansett Bay segment for shell fishing use. This outcome, along with the water quality improvements in Mt. Hope Bay and the Blackstone River, is the result of a productive and effective partnership between federal, state, and municipal government, along with local advocates, all of whom are working together to achieve better water quality and a healthier environment. Rhode Island is yielding impressive results from their investments to improve water quality,” said US EPA Acting Regional Administrator Deb Szaro.


Mt. Hope Bay (fish bioassessments)

In 1996 DEM included Mt. Hope Bay on its impaired waters list due to the sharp decline in the number and diversity of fish associated with operations of the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, MA. DEM’s Division of Marine Fisheries conducted a review analysis of historical and recent available Mt. Hope Bay and Narragansett Bay finfish community data to evaluate abundance and species composition prior to and after construction of the cooling towers. The analysis showed that the large reduction in water withdrawn from and heat discharged to the Bay was followed by a realignment of the Mt. Hope Bay finfish community with that of Narragansett Bay.  


Blackstone River (total phosphorus (TP) and dissolved oxygen (DO) impairment) 

This impairment was identified in 1996 (DO) and 1998 (TP) from extensive monitoring and application of a DO model leading to stringent phosphorus limits at five wastewater treatment facilities (WWTF) in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Continuous dissolved oxygen data collected in 2017 and documentation of phosphorus reductions at the WWTF plants and data collected in the river over the last 10-15 years showed a significant drop in phosphorus levels as a result of the WWTF phosphorus reductions. The data show that TP and DO are no longer impairments for the Rhode Island portion of the Blackstone River, protecting aquatic life.


In October 2020, DEM held a virtual public workshop to present findings of the full statewide assessment of water quality conditions, including the draft impaired waters List. During the workshop, DEM representatives described the state’s water quality assessment process, general findings of this assessment including new waterbody impairments added to the impaired waters list and the proposed removal of others.  The state’s priorities for completing the federally mandated water quality restoration studies were also discussed.


DEM’s Office of Water Resources biennially assesses the quality of the state’s surface waters by comparing available monitoring data against the state’s established water quality criteria to determine whether the waters are suitable for such uses as swimming, fish/shellfish consumption, and aquatic life.  The results of this assessment are presented in the state’s Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report (Integrated Report), which documents the overall quality of the state’s waters. It includes a five-part Integrated List which provides available information on each of the state’s lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and estuarine waters. The process of conducting the assessment is documented in the Consolidated Assessment and Listing Methodology at: http://www.dem.ri.gov/programs/benviron/water/quality/pdf/calm20.pdf.


As part of the process, DEM identifies those surface waters that do not meet water quality criteria for which a water quality restoration study known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) is required in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act. These impaired waters are placed on the state’s 303(d) List, which also establishes a schedule for development of the federally mandated studies.   The 2018-2020 303(d) list is included in the state’s Impaired Waters Report, available on-line on DEM’s website at:http://dem.ri.gov/programs/benviron/water/quality/pdf/iwr1820.pdf


The approved List of Impaired Waters  is also available on US EPA’s website at https://www.epa.gov/tmdl/region-1-impaired-waters-and-303d-lists-state#iw-ri [epa.gov]


For information on DEM programs and initiatives, visit www.dem.ri.gov.  Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RhodeIslandDEM or on Twitter (@RhodeIslandDEM) for timely updates.

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