SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Concerns over a new outdoor water ban led to talks Monday about South Kingstown’s water system — including its challenges and the potentially costly fixes that ratepayers would bear.
The recent heat wave and ongoing water bans in South County have caused officials to field calls and emails about what types of water use is and isn’t allowed, and whether the town is looking at any long-term solutions such as new wells, towers or reservoirs.
“South Kingstown, we have a water problem,” resident Karen Ramsay said. Ramsay said her property is her “own piece of paradise,” and lamented the ban that went into effect July 11.
“Every July a ban is imposed. There is not a drought. Our water source is groundwater, not a reservoir. Groundwater levels in June were normal,” she said. Ramsay said she’s worried that at some point soon, customers “will be showering on odd/even days year-round.”
Her husband, Glenn, said Karen is Italian.
“Telling an Italian that they can’t have a garden is a bad idea. Telling an Italian to kill her tomatoes when they’re just beginning to ripen is a very bad idea,” he said.
Town Manager James Manni said the town has had five full water bans between 2008 and 2022. The bans were on weekends only in 2008, 2010, 2016 and 2020, he said.
The town has four water utilities with five separate service areas: the University of Rhode Island, Kingston Water District, the town’s south shore and Middlebridge water systems, and Veolia/Suez.
South Kingstown has bought water from Veolia for south shore since 2002 and has always bought water from Veolia for Middlebridge, as there is no supply source there, Public Works Director Jon Schock said.
Speaking at his final council meeting before he retires, Schock said the town is not looking to penalize the home gardener who uses an outdoor watering can “or even a hose. It’s the unattended hose bibs and the automatic sprinklers that we just can’t keep up with.”
South Kingstown has two personnel in its water department, making enforcement of a ban difficult. Allowing residents to water vegetables is fine, he said, but what about flowers and shrubs?
“Where do you draw the line,” Schock said. “Lawns are by far the biggest problem.”
He offered an example: The town’s south shore water system pumps about 225,000 gallons per day in winter. That rises to 800,000 gallons per day in the summer without restrictions.
“As soon as we put those restrictions in place, we drop down to about 450,000 so the restrictions work, and it shows that almost 400,000 gallons per day is going for outside irrigation,” Schock said.
There’s the possibility that the town could relax some parts of the ban.
“Maybe we could put it out there that vegetables are OK,” Council member Deborah Kelso said. But the town and customers will have to find more long-term solutions, given the realities of climate change, she said.
Separate from Kingston or Veolia water, South Kingstown’s metering system has the ability to monitor a customer’s daily water use, “but we need to physically see somebody using it,” Schock said. “We can’t just rely on the water reading. But we have an idea of who’s using what.”
Veolia and Kingston draw from the Chipuxet/Mink aquifer.
The Chipuxet drainage basin land area totals 36.93 square miles in South Kingstown, Exeter, North Kingstown, Richmond, and Charlestown, according to the state Water Resources Board. The basin supports public water supplies, agriculture, a recreational use (Yagoo), and private wells. The Chipuxet provides most of the public water supply of two towns — Narragansett and South Kingstown.
A 2014 state study of the aquifer showed the flow from it in a typical July is 6.2 million gallons per day above its rated output, Schock said.
“Of that 6.2, 5.9 (million gallons) is the sum total for the water utilities,” Schock said. “The likelihood of the state approving more source of supply in that aquifer is unlikely.”
Three wells on the Green Hill aquifer were taken offline about 20 years ago because they did not meet acceptable drinking water standards, Manni said.
“It would cost about $12 million for a filtration system to fix that,” he said. He based that on information from Schock, who learned that Veolia had installed a similar filter system in a Massachusetts municipality.
About 81 percent of the town is on a water system — Veolia, South Kingstown, or Kingston, Manni said. Of that, about 5,200 accounts are with Veolia, the town has about 2,800 and Kingston about 1,200.
Other logistical considerations besides supply, such as storage and how to transmit the water “from point A to point B” also need to be taken into account, Schock said.
“Likely it would require upgrading the mains in the roads, which then require road restoration, booster stations,” Schock said. “We’re talking millions and millions of dollars for essentially six to eight weeks a year where the primary purpose is for outside irrigation using potable water that meets the Safe Drinking Water Act for human consumption. That’s a policy decision for the council.”
Several years ago, the town explored connecting Suez with the Kingstown Water District, but the systems were incompatible.
“Their water quality, their treatment, is different from Suez,” Schock said. Kingston also lost its two biggest users, APC and East Farm — accounting for why that system now has a surplus, he added.
Resident Gary Chapman said the town has to come up with a solution to stop the yearly bans. He asked why a Veolia representative wasn’t at Monday’s meeting.
“We can’t keep doing this year after year, adding more people onto the system and not having a plan to end it,” he said.
Manni said he had talked last week with the chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Jack Reed about possible federal infrastructure money for the problem, but did not get an answer.
“He said the conversation would continue,” Manni said. “If it can be done, we’ll do our best to get it done.”