On March 30, the Warwick sewer plant shut down as a wall of water from the Pawtuxet River rushed over the dike surrounding the plant that sits hard on Interstate 95 and forced operators to flee.
For five days sewage from the state’s second most-populous city flowed untreated into the river. All told, Warwick Sewer Authority Superintendent Joel Burke estimates as much as 25 million gallons of raw sewage flowed into the river. It was perhaps the most visible, and definitely the smelliest, environmental consequence of the March flooding that soaked the state in more than 8 inches of water during two days.
But those that study the environment say despite flooding sewer plants, chemical barrels brought downriver by raging waters and pollutants washed off roadways, the state’s environment will bounce back. Much of the water – and accompanying garbage and bacteria – will find its way to Narragansett Bay where, thanks to a natural flushing action, it will move quickly out to sea, said Scott Nixon, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.
“I wouldn’t say it was a good thing that was happening, but I don’t think it will have any major affect on the bay in the long term,” Nixon said.
Rhode Island also got lucky in terms of the weather. Nixon said freshwater entering the bay creates a type of lid, sealing off the underlying salt water from oxygen, which can lead to fish kills. But the water temperature was so low that bacteria on the bottom that suck up the oxygen are largely dormant; leaving the oxygen that remains available for the bay’s other adequate life.
“Better to happen now than in August,” he said.
The Warwick sewage-treatment plant was not the only one to overflow. The Bucklin Point plant in East Providence reached capacity and diverted sewage into the Seekonk River for about 20 minutes, said Jamie Samons, a spokeswoman for the Narragansett Bay Commission, which manages the plant.
“I think everyone is very optimistic as far as the way the bay responded and that this will not have a lasting impact,” Samons said.
The commission also reported that its massive Combined Sewer Overflow project helped keep millions of gallons of contaminated storm runoff out of the bay. Samons said the system that can store 65 million gallons of water filled up by March 29, the first day of a two-day period of intense rain. And even though the system did not capture all of the runoff, Samons said the commission considered diverting 65 million gallons for treatment a success for the $350 million project.