Updated November 28 at 12:26pm

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Five Questions With: Tom Kutcher


It’s summertime, and the swimming on Narragansett Bay has not been easy this year, with more than 100 closure days at local beaches because of high bacteria count.

The messenger of the bad news this summer has often been heavy rains, according to Tom Kutcher, Save The Bay’s Narragansett Baykeeper, sweeping pollution into Rhode Island’s natural estuary.

Providence Business News asked Kutcher to talk about what’s causing the problem, and why it’s a health and economic story as much as it’s an environmental story.

PBN: What has been causing the increasing number of beach closing along Narragansett Bay this summer?

KUTCHER: The closings are caused by bacteria that’s been washed into the Bay by all the rain we’ve been having. These bacteria are the type that can cause intestinal distress, so the R.I. Department of Health issues a closure when they detect a high enough concentration in the water at a licensed swimming beach.

The distribution of the closures this year, and other factors, point toward local sources of bacteria, such as storm water pollution from pet waste, garbage, lawn fertilizers, and automotive fluids washed off the watershed by rain; and failing septic systems that contaminate groundwater that flows into the Bay, particularly when the water table is high (such as after rain).

Although we can implicate high rainfall as a driving factor this year, we need to recognize that: (1) the rain is just the messenger, (2) we’re always going to have rain, (3) we can’t control the amount of rain we have, and (4) but for the pollution it entrains, rain nourishes our Bay (it’s an estuary, after all).

PBN: Are the beach closings an early warning system of dangers from rises in water temperature as a result of climate change?

KUTCHER: Not exactly, but we do expect climate change to exacerbate the problem in that, in Rhode Island, we have seen a doubling of intense rainfall events in the past decade, and an increase in annual rainfall. This means more rain to deliver our pollution out into the Bay, just like it did this year. All the more reason we need to deal with the pollution.

PBN: Beyond beach closings, what other kinds of signs or symptoms of distress has Save the Bay found?

KUTCHER: This summer, we have seen low oxygen on the Bay comparable in intensity to the event that caused the famous 2003 fish kill in Greenwich Bay. The same contaminated runoff and groundwater that carries the bacteria that can make us sick also carries excessive nutrients that contribute to algae blooms and subsequent low oxygen that can be unhealthy or deadly to fish, crabs, shellfish, and particularly their larvae.

We have anecdotally seen an unusually high number of dead blue crabs these past few weeks. I will be out on the Bay in the morning testing oxygen levels throughout the upper Bay for low oxygen. We’ll keep the public informed.

PBN: Why is this a health story – and an economic story – as much as it is an environmental story?

KUTCHER: This is a health story because swimming in polluted water can make you sick, as can eating raw shellfish from polluted water. Also, swimming in our beautiful Bay nurtures the body and soul of a true Rhode Islander!

This is an economic story in that Rhode Island’s tourism economy is directly tied to clean beaches, and tied to the tourism economy are all sorts of purchases directly and indirectly associated with that day trip or vacation to the beach.

Long-term economic implications also need to be considered because visitors could lose faith in the reliability of our beaches and decide to visit elsewhere.

Additionally, it’s hard to imagine that widespread low oxygen conditions wouldn’t affect the productivity of our local commercial and recreational fisheries.

PBN: What kinds of actions can citizens – and businesses – take to improve the current situation?

KUTCHER: Citizens: Replace your cesspool with a functioning system or tie into the sewers, if available. Pick up after your dog. Fix your leaky oil pan. Don’t fertilize your lawn. Install a rain garden to capture your yard, roof, and driveway runoff.

Businesses: Install a pervious parking lot or a lot that has vegetated infiltration swales to treat your runoff. Take full responsibility for any pollution that runs off of your property.

All: Urge your local representatives to support cesspool phase-out, statewide. Urge your municipal officials to develop a sustainable stormwater plan designed to safeguard our local waters and our Bay in perpetuity.


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