Rhode Island Puts Infrastructure into Focus

Congressional and state leaders -- joined by water infrastructure professionals, public health officials, and environmental protection experts -- gathered Oct. 5 in Jamestown, R.I., to discuss the critical role water infrastructure plays in protecting public health and promoting economic prosperity in Rhode Island.

The event, a kick-off for Rhode Island Water Infrastructure Month, set the stage for a month-long campaign designed to raise awareness of several key issues related to wastewater (clean water), drinking water, and stormwater infrastructure including:

• The wide range of agencies, initiatives, and individuals who work to keep Rhode Island's water flowing as cost-effectively as possible.

• The success stories at the municipal and state levels that have helped protect public health and the environment.

•The role of government (state and local) in protecting and improving Rhode Island's water infrastructure resources and the strong coordination among agencies that exists in the state.

•Current project needs and the critical funding gaps that exist for water infrastructure improvements.

"Our water infrastructure is at work every time we turn on the faucet, take a shower, or swim at the beach," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "Most of us take clean water for granted, but the systems that keep our water safe for drinking and clean for recreation are under heavy stress. We need more resources to upgrade Rhode Island's aging sewage treatment plants and water delivery systems to meet the demands of the 21st century." 

RI has 16 major municipal wastewater treatment facilities, plus three facilities operated by quasi-state entities -- Narragansett Bay Commission and Quonset Development Corporation. These facilities operate all day, every day, to make polluted water clean, in accordance with increasing treatment expectations. In total, these facilities treat about 100 million gallons of sewage every day -- more at some facilities if it is raining. Much of the wastewater collection and treatment process takes place underground.

According to DEM records, statewide there are:

•1,250 miles of sewer lines (ranging from 8 inches to more than 8 feet in diameter 370 pump stations (which total about 1,000 pumps), and

• Approximately 450 state-licensed professionals operating and maintaining Rhode Island's water infrastructure.

At the event, Robert Varney, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, presented state officials with checks totaling more than $12.5 million dollars in federal FY 2008 capitalization grant funds. These funds will be used to provide low-interest loans for clean water and drinking water infrastructure projects in Rhode Island.

"Communities in Rhode Island and throughout New England must continue to invest in clean water and drinking water infrastructure in order to ensure safe drinking water, protect public health and make water quality improvements," said Varney. "Further, the lack of adequate drinking water and sewer infrastructure can result in increased public health concerns, contaminated drinking water, closed beaches, and reduced economic activity. State Revolving Fund (SRF) grants provided by EPA to the RI SRF will help municipalities in Rhode Island replace and upgrade critical infrastructure. Providing low-interest loans through the RI SRF can significantly reduce the cost of these projects to the ratepayers."

Varney also presented Jamestown and Middletown with the EPA's prestigious 2008 PISCES Awards. The PISCES Award is given annually by EPA to acknowledge effective and innovative uses of the Clean Water State SRF and Drinking Water SRF program funds. The award switches each year between recognizing an outstanding state program and an outstanding borrower in each of the 10 EPA regions. Last year, Rhode Island won for the best program in Region 1. This year Jamestown is the PISCES winner for the Drinking Water SRF and Middletown is the winner for Clean Water SRF.

"Not many people realize the tremendous amount of work that goes into maintaining our water infrastructure and how critical it is to daily life," said Bruce Keiser, town administrator, Jamestown. "Building and maintaining community water infrastructure systems is a fundamental role of state and local government."

While the wastewater treatment profession has taken advantage of technological advances to improve water treatment and control, costs continue to rise as the infrastructure ages. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that sewer lines have a useful life of 50 years. The vast majority of the nation's pipe network was installed after World War II and is now reaching the end of its useful life.

"This funding from the EPA will allow the Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency to fund, through low-interest, 20-year loans, approximately $80 million in project costs for a wide range of clean water and drinking water infrastructure improvements throughout the state," said Frank Caprio, Rhode Island general treasurer and treasurer of the Board of Directors, RI Clean Water Finance Agency. "Access to low-interest financing is essential to a municipality's ability to afford necessary upgrades to their aging water infrastructure. In some cases, loans from RICWFA have resulted in nearly a 50 percent savings over the term of the project."

Rhode Island Water Infrastructure Month will culminate with the airing of two important educational programs on Rhode Island PBS on Oct. 30. The first, "Liquid Assets: The Story of Our Water Infrastructure," is a national documentary that explores the history, engineering, and political and economic challenges of our water infrastructure, and engages communities in local discussion about public water and wastewater issues. The film will be immediately followed by "Hidden Assets: Rhode Island's Water Infrastructure," a Rhode Island PBS-produced roundtable program featuring local water infrastructure experts. The panel will include W. Michael Sullivan, Ph.D., director, R.I. Department of Environmental Management; Pamela Marchand, chief engineer and general manager, Providence Water Supply Board; Raymond J. Marshall, P.E., executive director, Narragansett Bay Commission, Anthony Simeone, executive director, R.I. Clean Water Finance Agency. The roundtable discussion will be moderated by Maureen Moakley, associate professor, University of Rhode Island.

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