State Summary: Rhode Island

Ranked 14th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states)
5% of samples exceeded national standards for designated beach areas in 2012

Protecting swimmers from bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants in beachwater requires leadership. Federal officials must help clean up polluted stormwater runoff—the most commonly identified cause of beach closings and swimming advisories—by developing national rules that require pollution sources to prevent stormwater where it starts by retaining it on-site.

The Environmental Protection Agency must also set beachwater quality standards protective of human health and provide states with the support they need to monitor beach pollution and notify the public when pollution levels are high.

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Rhode Island 2012 Beachwater Quality Summary

Reported Sources of Beachwater Contamination
(number of closing/advisory days)

  • 49 (100%) unknown contamination sources

Rhode Island has more than 200 beach access points along about 400 miles of Atlantic Ocean and Narragansett Bay waters. The Rhode Island Department of Health is responsible for beachwater monitoring and water quality notifications.

What Are the Water Quality Challenges and Improvements in Rhode Island?

Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement

Many urban areas across the U.S. have combined sewer systems, which carry both stormwater and sewage in the same pipes. During heavy storms, the combined flows can exceed the capacity of the sewer system and overflow into waterways. The Narragansett Bay Commission is currently in the middle of a two-phase, multiyear combined sewer overflow (CSO) abatement program that will create six miles of underground storage tunnels, five CSO interceptors, a wetland treatment system, and sewer separation in 12 areas. When the program is complete, overflow volume will be reduced by an expected 98% and water quality will dramatically improve.

The first phase of this multiyear project (the addition of a tunnel, associated station, and drop shafts) was completed in 2008. Between 2008 and 2012, these improvements resulted in the treatment of approximately 4.6 billion gallons of overflow and wastewater that would have polluted Narragansett Bay. Construction for the second phase (two interceptors, two sewer separation projects, and a wetlands facility) began in 2011 and is expected to be complete by the end of 2014.

Seaweed Harvesting and UV Stormwater Treatment at Easton's Beach

In the summer of 2009, Easton's Beach in Newport County began using a seaweed harvester to remove excess seaweed from the beach in an effort to improve aesthetics and water quality. In 2012, approximately 64.35 tons of seaweed was removed. (Note that while piles of seaweed on the beach can contribute to poor water quality, they may play a role in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and their removal can have detrimental effects on local flora and fauna.)

Another undertaking to improve beachwater quality at Easton's Beach was the installation of an ultraviolet treatment system for destroying bacteria in stormwater discharges to the beach from Easton's Moat. The system, which began operating during the 2011 beach season, is activated when there is more than 0.25 inch of rain in a 24-hour period.

Beachwater quality has improved over time at Easton Beach. In 2008, despite low precipitation, 32% of samples taken at this beach exceeded water quality standards for fecal indicator bacteria. There was more rain in 2009 than in 2008, yet the percentage of samples exceeding standards dropped to 20%. In 2012, just 3% of samples exceeded water quality standards.

Green Infrastructure and Sewage Overflow Reductions at Bristol Town Beach

Bristol Town Beach in Colt State Park implemented a number of changes to improve beachwater quality, including green infrastructure techniques that allow stormwater to filter into the ground instead of running off into the ocean. Six catch basins connected to bioswales have been installed to intercept runoff from the park before it reaches the beach. Rainwater is filtered mechanically in the catch basins, and then further filtered by vegetation in the bioswales. The bioswales also significantly slow down the flow of rainwater, preventing surges of stormwater that may carry bacteria and other contamination to the beach.

Also, the storm drain whose outfall is at the beach has been opened and restored so that when there is stormwater flow from urban areas upstream of the beach, it follows a slow and winding path. This helps clean the water carried to the ocean and allows time for some infiltration into the soil. The park's parking lot has been resurfaced with permeable pavers, and bioretention swales and specialized vegetation have been installed around the parking lot to absorb and filter any stormwater that does run off.

In addition, there are plans to upgrade the sewage treatment plant near this beach and install underground tanks that will store rainwater during heavy storms. With the modifications, rainwater will be stored and released slowly to the sewage treatment plant when rainfall is not heavy and will help prevent overflows of untreated or partially treated sewage during storms.

Bristal Town Beach parking lot

The parking lot at Bristol Town Beach in Colt State Park uses green infrastructure. (Walter Burke)

Urban Beach Initiative

All of the beaches north of Conimicut Point in Warwick and Nayatt Point in Barrington have been unlicensed since 1999 because of ongoing water quality issues. Closures and advisories are never issued at these beaches because only licensed beaches are considered to be "open." However, the state specifically discourages swimming and other full-body water-contact activities north of Conimicut Point and urges people to refrain from any contact with water north of Conimicut Point for at least three days after heavy rainfall.

The Urban Beach Initiative was launched in 2010 in part to determine if there are areas in the upper Narragansett Bay that are safe for swimming. The initiative's sampling, surveys, and remediation efforts, undertaken in partnership with Save the Bay, continued into the 2012 beach season, and results of these efforts will be submitted to EPA in October 2013. The state hopes that testing will show that water quality has improved and can support swimming.

What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?1

In 2012, Rhode Island reported 241 coastal beaches. Of these, 20 (8%) were assigned a monitoring frequency of more than once a week, 2 (1%) were monitored once a week, 14 (6%) every other week, 42 (17%) once a month, and 163 (68%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency. In 2012, 5% of all reported beach monitoring samples exceeded the state's daily maximum bacterial standard of 104 colonies/100 ml. The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the state standard in 2012 were Sabins Point–Center (26%) and Bold Point (18%) in Providence County; and Grinells Beach (17%), Atlantic Beach Club (14%), Gooseberry Beach (11%), and Third Beach (11%) in Newport County. Providence County had the highest exceedance rate of the daily maximum standard in 2012 (14%), followed by Newport (7%), Kent (6%), Bristol (4%), and Washington (3%). NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

Rhode Island Percent of Samples Exceeding the State's Daily Maximum Bacterial Standard for 65 Beaches Reported 2008-2012*

    * Please note that only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2008-2012 are included in the bar chart.

    What Are Rhode Island's Sampling Practices?

    The regular monitoring season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Volunteer groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, Clean Ocean Access, and Save the Bay assist with sampling efforts throughout the year as well.

    The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and/or the Department of Health determine sampling practices, locations, standards, and notification protocols and practices throughout the state. Samples are collected just below the surface in water that is approximately 3 feet deep. The water quality at all licensed marine beaches in the state is monitored. High priority for more frequent monitoring is given to beaches with direct known sources of pollution (stormwater outfalls, septic/sewer connections, high population density, nearby sewer plants) and high usage, and to beaches that have exhibited poor water quality in the past.

    Monitors focus on areas of greatest concern and aim to collect samples when high bacteria counts are most likely to be present. The number of samples collected depends on the length of coastline and the presence of physical barriers to circulation (jetties, groins, etc.) that can trap bacterial contaminants near the shore.

    If a beach is closed or placed under advisory, sampling is conducted daily until the water quality meets standards and the beach is reopened. Extensive wet-weather sampling is conducted to determine the reopening schedule for beaches under preemptive rainfall advisories. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found or after heavy rainfall will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling schedule did not increase after an exceedance was found or after heavy rainfall.

    How Many Beach Closings and Advisories Were Issued in 2012?2

    Total closing/advisory days for 29 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less decreased 34% to 49 days in 2012 from 74 days in 2011. For prior years, there were 71 days in 2010, 178 days in 2009, and 124 days in 2008. In addition, there were no extended or permanent events in 2012. Extended events are those in effect more than six weeks but not more than 13 consecutive weeks; permanent events are in effect for more than 13 consecutive weeks. All 49 closing and advisory days in 2012 were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels.

    How Does Rhode Island Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?

    Rhode Island issues both beach closings (in response to bacterial contamination) and advisories (due to rain). The state's coastal bathing water standard is a single-sample maximum of 104 cfu/100 ml of enterococcus. No geometric mean standard is applied when determining whether to issue a beach closing. Advisory information is posted at the beach and online.

    The state's usual policy is to close a beach if sampling results exceed the standard. However, the state health department considers several environmental factors before deciding whether to close a beach because of bacterial contamination, including the presence of wildlife or seaweed, the number of tides since the sample was collected, the history of sample results for that beach, and rainfall.2 On occasion, if environmental factors do not suggest that fecal contamination is likely, the beach may remain open while it is resampled.

    If a known sewage discharge occurs in close proximity to a beach, officials immediately close the beach without waiting for sampling results to confirm contamination. Scarborough State Beach and Easton's Beach have preemptive rainfall standards and are closed when there is more than 1 inch of rainfall in a 24-hour period. Easton's Beach may reopen within 12 hours of cessation of heavy rain if water quality has shown to improve in that time period. These preemptive closure protocols are proving to be effective, and the Department of Health is developing additional closure evaluations based on rainfall. The Beach Monitoring Program generally recommends no water contact for three days after heavy rainfall.

    As noted above, the Department of Health discourages contact with water in Upper Narragansett Bay, north of Conimicut Point, for at least three days after heavy rains because the water is directly impacted by wastewater treatment facilities and/or storm drains in the area.

    Rhode Island 2012 Monitoring Results and Closing/Advisory Days

    Assigned Monitoring Frequency
    Total Samples
    % of samples exceeding
    state standards
    Closing or Advisory days
      NOTE: Data and state-specific information for this summary were collected from U.S. EPA, direct conversations with beach managers in the state, state grant reports to U.S. EPA for BEACH Act funding, and the state water quality website. The information in this state summary reflects current data as of June 7, 2013.
    1. If the 2012 percent exceedance values in this summary don't match, why not? The value at the top of the page reflects the proportion of samples exceeding the national single-sample maximum standard for designated beach areas. The values in the "What Does Beach Monitoring Show?" section reflect the proportion of samples exceeding the state standard, which in some states is more or less stringent than the national designated beach standard. Additionally, only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2008-2012 are included in the bar chart. Because some beaches were not monitored in each of those years, the percent exceedance for this subset of beaches may not have the same value as the percent exceedance for all of the beaches monitored in 2012.
    2. Year-to-year changes in closing/advisory days should not necessarily be interpreted as an indication of the level of bacterial contamination. In some states and localities, the number of beaches and/or beach monitoring frequency may not be consistent from one year to the next, and beaches may be closed or under a swimming advisory for reasons other than known or suspected bacterial contamination. Other reasons include, but are not limited to, chemical/oil spills, medical waste washing up on shore, dangerous currents, lack of lifeguards, etc. In addition, because NRDC's totals of closing/advisory events focus on those events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, those tallies do not account for longer-duration closings or advisories. For trends in water quality, please refer to NRDC's year-to-year comparison of percent exceedance rates of state water quality standards.


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