Flushing into the Flood

Fall 2019

Sea Level Rise and Storms Are Changing how Communities Deal with Wastewater

By Sue Kennedy
Photographs by Jesse Burke


Over a hundred years ago, locating the state’s first sewage treatment plant at Providence’s Fields Point, just a few feet above sea level, made total sense, from an engineering standpoint.

“Well, think about it—it was all about gravity,” says Bill Patenaude, a principal engineer for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, whose work monitoring wastewater treatment facilities helps ensure they’re running smoothly statewide. “Which way does water run? Downhill. Same for waste, right? Downhill.”

Downhill. This simple but profoundly effective concept has largely defined wastewater management in coastal communities everywhere for well over a century. It’s a strategy that tips its hat to a landscape that, in Rhode Island and along many places on the Eastern Seaboard, slopes downward to the ocean, forming watersheds. And Rhode Island, an early player in America’s Industrial Age, leveraged this natural landscape in its urban infrastructure—the wheel of Pawtucket’s Slater Mill would be powered by a rushing fall of river water; the pipes carrying sewage to Providence’s Fields Point wastewater treatment facility would obey the law of gravity as well.

And while it worked for a long time, with the majority of Rhode Island’s 19 wastewater treatment facilities anchored as firmly downhill as possible along the coast of Narragansett Bay and the rivers that feed it, climate change is turning what was once sublime simplicity into plain difficulty. These facilities face two key problems: Sea level is rising, so the ocean is encroaching upon many treatment plants, while a projected increase in strong storms means greater chance of them flooding during heavy rain. Either way, going under—and potentially going offline—is not an acceptable scenario to those in the daily business of managing wastewater treatment facilities.

Dealing with Downhill

“Climate change wasn’t a big part of the thinking when I started this job,” says Patenaude, who’s been evaluating treatment plants for the state for nearly 30 years. On this drizzly February morning, he dons a hardhat—his very own, he mentions wryly—and joins a group of college students who borrow hats from a bin so they can tour the Fields Point facility with the help of Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) Public Affairs Manager Jamie Samons. 

“Now? Resiliency’s probably 50% of what I do. And wastewater facilities are ground zero for this stuff,” Patenaude says.

He nods as Samons tells the two dozen undergraduates that NBC is already, with both its Fields Point facility and its Bucklin Point plant on East Providence’s coast, incorporating best practices into its management plans to deal with excess water.

“We are required by the state to have these resiliency plans,” says Samons. “And that’s a good thing, when you recognize that 2018 was our wettest year ever here. Ever.”

Students, all enrolled in a class taught by Emi Uchida, a University of Rhode Island professor of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics (ENRE), scratch pens across notebooks. They’re seniors with varied environmental majors coming together via a URI senior capstone course to explore shared issues, such as climate change.

Sarah O’Neil, an ENRE major, came away from the tour connecting dots between climate threats and the infrastructure upon which modern life deeply depends. 

2 Key Problems

+ Sea Level Rise

+ Flooding

Bill Patenaude spends much of his time assessing the resiliency of wastewater treatment plants to the impacts of climate change. 

 “It’s important to consider climate change issues and resiliency when talking about wastewater treatment due to the large impacts sea level rise can have on residents and businesses in the area,” she says. “Without improvements made to resiliency efforts, wastewater treatment facilities are essentially waiting to be compromised.”

The capstone course is a partnership of Rhode Island Sea Grant and the URI Coastal Resources Center (CRC) that folds in the teaching from several URI programs—ENRE, Ocean Engineering, and Landscape Architecture—and encourages students to work collaboratively across their disciplines to solve shared problems.

Climate change issues present an ideal opportunity for stretching student minds in interdisciplinary directions. Teresa Crean, coastal management extension specialist for CRC and Sea Grant, manages the capstone course. It’s important, she says, for students “to see firsthand how professionals in the field are tackling adaptation and resilience to changing coastal hazards and how they might develop skills to take with them into the job market. Students are challenged; they’re exchanging data and analysis outputs with their classmates in different disciplines, while the working professionals benefit from having fresh sets of eyes on the challenges of their day jobs.”

And there’s plenty of opportunity at the wastewater facility level. Coastal community plant managers around Rhode Island are increasingly committed to spending at least half their time on the job on the effort of incorporating resiliency into facility planning and management. Their shared goal is clear: Keep water—from the rising ocean to storm deluges—out, so plants can process and people can flush.

Plants with Plans

It’s not an easy task, what with treatment plants gradually losing ground to sea level rise, while the threat of storm flooding increases, but it’s staunchly underway. Today, dealing with downhill—adapting local wastewater treatment facilities to withstand these threats—involves applying climate change data to planning decisions, educating stakeholders and treatment plant customers about why they should care about facility protection, and initiating tough discussions now, instead of waiting until it’s too late.

“Look, eventually we’re going to come to a point where big decisions are going to have to be made—are you going to continue to armor in place? Are you going to retreat? These are things we’re going to have to figure out,” says Patenaude. “So we need to learn and adapt now, so the community’s prepared to address these issues in the future.”

At municipal wastewater treatment facilities, such as the ones operated by Narragansett, Warren, and Warwick, plans are in place, and action is being taken. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but all three exemplify the issue being experienced by coastal community treatment plants: Come up with relatively affordable plans that are mindful of projected increases in water and can keep facilities dry and working in increasingly wet environments.

“Oh, we knew the time had come to get this done—change is here and everyone knew we had to get to work on this now,” says Mike DeLuca, community development director for the town of Narragansett, who, together with town engineer Jeff Ceasrine, started town boards years ago on the process of introducing a resiliency component to their hazard mitigation and community comprehensive plans.

“I mean, it had become totally clear that we had to do this, as evidenced by Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene. When you’re a planner, and you finally see that you’re not getting pushback on this issue of climate change, you’re getting support now instead, you know people are really starting to see what’s going on,” says DeLuca.

What was going on at Narragansett’s treatment plant, situated along the bay coast directly south of Scarborough State Beach, was that it needed to be protected from inundation caused by storms. The facility has flooded increasingly over the years, so the town ultimately opted to armor, or shield, the low-lying facility from taking on floodwater. In his office, DeLuca shares pictures of the nearly $2 million construction project—large metal sheets deeply dug and buried into raised ground around the facility, infrastructure designed to sluice downhill floodwaters away from the area.

“Sea level rise at that time may mean the town’s looking to put its wastewater treatment somewhere else”

It’s a success, says DeLuca, and iterations of the comprehensive plans since the construction feature increasingly detailed resiliency components for town infrastructure and assets. Still, DeLuca indicates, there’s no getting away from the fact that Mother Nature will probably always win when it comes to sea level rise.

“What we’ve done for this facility is important and useful—but we’re purposely looking no further out than 2050, maybe 2060,” says Deluca. “The fact is that sea level rise at that time may mean the town’s looking to put its wastewater treatment somewhere else. We can’t solve everything today, but we’ve got to keep educating, and we’ve got to keep talking about it as a community.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the town of Warren, which is also busy implementing a comprehensive $20 million plan to keep existing facilities perched on the coast of the Warren River, a part of the bay, dry and functioning for at least the foreseeable future. Town Manager Kate Michaud, who is a former Warren planner, and Bob Rulli, town director of planning and community development, say it’s important that Warren’s resiliency plan for its wastewater treatment facilities does two things: protect critical infrastructure and respect the many needs of the town’s citizenry and businesses.

“It’s definitely a balancing act,” says Michaud. “On the one hand, we need to stay above water, and clearly, that takes a financial investment. On the other hand, we are a working-class community, so we have issues and focuses that maybe other places don’t deal with as much. We’re addressing both, and it’s meant a lot of balancing and being mindful of many needs.”

She says those needs range from workforce housing to economic development to infrastructure repair and maintenance. Climate change is certainly complicating management of such needs, she says, but “we have an opportunity now to mitigate negative impacts in the future if we approach things correctly and give these issues their due attention.”

And it’s been powerful for Warren to consider the degree to which coastal life, with all its infrastructure, may be impacted by climate change. “We’re thinking about it comprehensively, because that’s what it means to manage the community,” Rulli says. “It’s community development, it’s housing, it’s transportation. It’s our real estate, it’s all incomes, it’s jobs and shopping, and what we’re doing with the wastewater treatment is starting it.”

Warren’s plan focuses on early actions and on implementing changes that are not only affordable, but are viewable, concrete, and can encourage the community to take gradual and effective steps toward resiliency. Elevating facility generators and floodproofing entryways are among the actions, and they are part of the work that the town has undertaken to adopt a comprehensive approach to resiliency building—for wastewater treatment issues and otherwise.

“The generator at the wastewater treatment facility has been elevated above the height of flood-stage water with up to 3 feet of sea level rise. We’re using this same methodology, incorporating STORMTOOLS (a URI mapping application) into decision making, to evaluate and upgrade wastewater pump stations around town,” says Michaud.

“In our more vulnerable pump stations we’re replacing [traditional] pumps with submersible pumps that can continue to operate while flooded, and we’ll be further evaluating how to make these facilities more resilient as equipment needs replacing.”

She says other projects to improve resiliency focus on mitigating the impacts of more intense and frequent precipitation and include increasing the capacity of stormwater systems and restoring flood-plain areas.

On the policy side, and similar to other municipalities, Warren has significantly beefed up the resiliency components of its hazard mitigation and comprehensive plans. The town has dedicated time to making sure the members of its elected and volunteer boards learn about climate change issues, and it’s using STORMTOOLS to both understand projected changes and adapt policy as needed.

StormTools is a web-based program to show residents and coastal planners the impacts of various sea level rise and storm surge scenarios.

Michaud says that it’s taken time, but Warren’s boards have come to see and support the need for resiliency building in the town—and the wastewater facilities are a prime concern.

Future plans, Michaud says, will include elevating the town’s several pump stations located at the water’s edge. It’s important to get the brick buildings up and dry, she says, but it’s a good opportunity, too, to build people’s understanding about what it means, in today’s day and age, to live on the coast. “People are definitely going to notice the added height, and I’m hoping that they’ll be thinking about why we’re doing this, and what sea level rise means, and what increased flooding means,” she says. “It’s going to be noticeable, and that’s what these actions are about, getting the community involved in it.”

In Warwick, where the wastewater treatment facility sits low in an oxbow of the Pawtuxet River, resiliency efforts have focused on sheltering the plant from the flooding that often swells the river and on retrofitting facility buildings and infrastructure to weather excess water. Not many days go by, says then-plant manager Janine Burke-Wells, when she doesn’t think about 2010, the year when the facility was submerged by excessive early spring rains that overflowed the riverbanks and ultimately required an approximate $14 million repair and improvement effort.

“Never build in an oxbow” sardonically laughs Burke-Wells, trudging up a steep slope of the berm that now protects the northern side of the facility from the river.

She points out how the grassy appearance of the berm tricks people into thinking it’s nothing more than a pile of dirt. In fact, she says, it took careful design and planning to build the berm out of earthen materials best suited to both absorb and stop floodwater from filling the facility area. A companion berm bounds the plant to the west, and Burke-Wells is proud of, and confident in, the protection the structures provide. The berms, coupled with the infrastructure retrofits that largely floodproofed the treatment center’s buildings and equipment, now provide significant protection to the plant.

The Warwick facility, low as it is, and hard by the river, has often flooded—the facility was first constructed almost three-quarters of a century ago; the original berm went up in 1982—but the changing climate, with its projected increase in storm events, has required the city to step up its whole protection approach. “It could mean that a 2010 storm scenario happens again, and we need to be ready for that,” she says.

Gary Marino, a Warwick resident, agrees. Today he sits on the board of the city’s sewer authority, but his memories of the 2010 flood are defined by the loss he and his Natick neighbors experienced as people of a close-knit community submerged by a rain-swollen Pawtuxet River for days on end. He remembers setting up a sump pump for a neighbor; he recalls filling sandbags for the West Warwick Department of Public Works at his parish church, Sacred Heart, with the Boy Scout troop he helped out with.

He had the small boat that he and his sons used to ferry neighbors to what remained of their homes, in efforts to collect money, clothing, maybe prescription medications. There was a lot of crying. Marino thought he better give his boys some way to cope while people grieved. “I told my sons just look at the bottom of the boat and let them have their moment,” he says.

“This was the saddest memory of mine for the entire flood. The raw emotion of someone having their home ruined by floodwaters was something you don’t want to experience.”

Which is why, like her colleagues in Narragansett and Warren, Burke-Wells says that education is an important piece of the floodproofing puzzle. While 2010 is not a year she’d like to relive, Burke-Wells says that the learning that emerged from the event has been valuable. The connections that were forged between the government levels—municipal, state, and federal—are still in place, and there is more of a united front within the larger planning community to work together now to help each other solve these pressing climate change problems impacting wastewater facilities across the state. “What I really am interested in now is seeing if we can have the state and some of Warwick’s neighboring communities come together and work together on the planning we have to do and keep up with so we can stay on top of this,” says Burke-Wells.

“I am choosing to see this as an opportunity for us all to help each other, because this is a problem that is not going away.”

Getting Underground

And while government prepares community wastewater treatment facilities for climate change impacts, scientists are trying to better understand a different angle of wastewater treatment—the issue of what’s going on below the surface of lawns in neighborhoods where septic systems are the prime method for treating wastewater. Alissa Cox, a doctoral student in the URI Department of Natural Resources Science, describes the groundwater research effort: “With this project, what we’re thinking about is, okay, here are all these homes [in Charlestown] and people maybe are even adapting their houses to climate change, but is anyone thinking about below the surface, below the houses?”

The project is both creating a septic system census from available banks of permit data to get a picture of the general underground landscape and measuring groundwater tables at several specific sites.

Together, says Cox, these efforts may help shed light on how well septic system-reliant communities are prepared to deal with their groundwater being impacted by influxes or inundation from sea level rise and strong storms. And at a very practical level, if the water tables are shown to be rising, that could be an impetus for not only Charlestown, but other coastal communities, to wade into the difficult dialogue about what to do to solve it.

“We know that it’s important for septic systems to function properly if they’re really going to treat wastewater at the level they should,” says Cox. “But what we may need to start talking about here is that septic systems may not function well at all if the groundwater table rises significantly.”

And regardless of the resiliency target, be it a wastewater treatment facility or a neighborhood’s septic systems, the experts say that education is the shared key to adapting both to what is likely a wetter future in Rhode Island. “Whether you’re a student, a facility worker, or a stakeholder in the community, it’s critical,” says Patenaude, as the student tour at Fields Point winds down. “New England is already seeing some of the heaviest volume and intensity with increased rainfall, so this dialogue is going to need to keep taking place, and we’ve all got a role in making sure it happens.”

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