Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management

235 Promenade Street | Providence, RI 02908 | 401.222.4700 | www.dem.ri.gov | @RhodeIslandDEM




PROVIDENCE— In observance of National Public Works Week (NPWW), the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is saluting the decades of investments and construction of wastewater collections and treatment systems in the Ocean State and the hundreds of men and women who run and maintain the state’s 19 wastewater treatment systems. These facilities, and their professional operations, are largely responsible for water quality improvements in Narragansett Bay — including those leading to next week’s historic opening of shell fishing beds in the Providence River.  The theme of this year’s NPWW, ‘Stronger Together,’ reflects the collaborative approach taken by DEM and its partners in the wastewater treatment industry.


“The decades of water quality improvements in Narragansett Bay are the result of DEM’s strong permitting, enforcement, investment in infrastructure, inspections programs, and our collaboration with the scientific and engineering community, state and local leaders, and the wastewater treatment profession itself,” said DEM Director Janet Coit.  “Today, issues such as climate change — which threaten so much of our clean water infrastructure — require a collaborative approach. Working together with stakeholders and Rhode Islanders who continually approve clean-water bond issues, we can continue to keep our waters safe and healthy.”


Representatives of the wastewater industry agree.


"The theme for this year's National Public Works Week, 'Stronger Together,' could not be more appropriate for Rhode Island's wastewater treatment profession," said Peter Connell, the president of the Rhode Island Clean Water Association, a trade organization that represents Rhode Island's wastewater collection and treatment professionals. "RICWA has worked closely with RI DEM over the years, especially in the area of innovative operator training, as well as with the private sector, the General Assembly, local governments, and environmental advocates. Our motto since 1952 has been 'United for Clean Water' because we as a profession know that collaboration is the best way to protect our state's waters and serve the public, especially our fellow Rhode Islanders who earn their livings from shell fishing and other water-based economies."


“We are at an historic moment,” said Narragansett Bay Commission Chairman Vincent Mesolella. “Narragansett Bay is cleaner than it has been in 150 years. We continue to make progress through smart investments and a daily commitment to the environment, resiliency, and public health. We know that these activities create profound opportunities for recreation and good jobs for Rhode Islanders. The talented people who do this important task could work anywhere, but they choose to work in clean water because it makes our communities better for everyone.”


Since the adoption of the Clean Water Act in 1972, hundreds of millions of federal, state, and local funds have helped design, build, upgrade, and operate sewage collection and treatment systems throughout Rhode Island. Since the 1990s, state discharge permits for these facilities have become more stringent as DEM and its partners determined more about the impacts of pollution on our state’s waters.


Recent wastewater treatment facility upgrades —including the construction of Phases I and II of the Narragansett Bay Commission’s Combined Sewer Overflow (NBC CSO) abatement project—have resulted in markedly improved water quality—improvements that resonate through our quality of life and the state’s fishing and tourist industry. Recent examples include:


● Beginning on May 26, for the first time in the 75 years that records are available, a portion of the lower Providence River will open to quahog harvesting on a conditional basis. Millions of additional quahogs will be available for sustainable harvesting on 1,900 acres, or 35 percent of the Providence River. 


● In 2017 DEM announced that improvements in water quality allowed the shell fishing area previously identified as Conditional Area B to operate on an approved status, and Conditional Area A to close at 1.2 inches of rainfall versus a half-inch of rainfall prior to Phases I and II of the NBC CSO project. These changes increased shellfish harvesting by 84 days annually in Upper Bay Area A and 60 days in former Area B.


● Stringent phosphorus limits at five wastewater treatment facilities (WWTF) in Rhode Island and Massachusetts led to the improvement in water quality, allowing for removal of the aquatic life impairments first identified in the late 1990s from the Rhode Island portion of the Blackstone River.


Combined, Rhode Island’s wastewater treatment systems process some 120 million gallons of residential, commercial, and industrial wastewater every day. These facilities operate all day, every day, 365 days a year. DEM’s work with wastewater facility operations and maintenance staff include cooperative efforts to protect these critical systems from the impacts and threats of issues such as climate change and cyber-attacks. In 2017, DEM conducted a comprehensive study of the potential impacts of climate change and related natural hazard on the state’s nineteen wastewater systems. This study paved the way for the approval by statewide voters of a 2018 bond that included funding to protect wastewater infrastructure from the hazards identified in the 2017 study. To date, some $4.7 million in grants have been awarded to 14 communities and the Quonset Development Corporation to better protect their wastewater systems from flooding and other natural hazards, which are expected to worsen in the coming decades. 


While operators at wastewater treatment facilities are licensed by the Board of Certification of Operators of Wastewater Treatment Facilities, they prove their expertise in other ways. Since 1988, the Rhode Island Clean Water Association has sponsored Rhode Island operators and other wastewater professionals at regional and national “Operator Challenge” events—known by some as “the Wastewater Olympics.” The Operator Challenge is a series of technical exams and fast-paced repair and safety events that place operators from different states in competition. Over the past several years, the Rhode Team took this competition to new levels.


o    From 2015 to 2019, the Rhode Island team took first place overall at the New England regional competition and qualified for the national competition for each of those five years.

o    In 2017, Rhode Island’s Operator Challenge team became the first and only New England team to sweep all five events with first place in New England history.

o    In 2018, Rhode Island’s operator team placed first nationally in Laboratory and Process Control events and 8th place finish overall. 

o    In 2019, the team took a very respectable second place the national laboratory competition.

o    (Due to COVID-19, no competitions were held in 2020.)


To learn more about the history of wastewater system construction visit http://www.dem.ri.gov/wwtfhistory


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.