Narragansett Bay Commission a model for cleaner, safer water

In the 18th Century, Rhode Islanders deposited household wastewater from sinks, washtubs, and outhouses directly into local rivers, in the belief that dilution would render waste harmless…  In 1854, the city of Providence, the seventh largest community

in the United States, reels under its second cholera epidemic in five years. New deaths are reported daily, with three out of every five occurring in a section of Providence bordering the Moshassuck River, a branch of the Providence River. Dr. Edwin Snow, the Superintendent of Health for the city described the river as “filthy as any common sewer…”

The above excerpt from the Narragansett Bay Commission’s web site (, chronicles a fascinating, albeit dark story. It was, indeed, a dangerous century for Rhode Island waters. The chapters to follow read no less disturbing. In the 1970s, for example, the absence of a continuous maintenance program saw the condition of the Field’s Point plant decline to the point where nearly 65 million gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage would flow into Rhode Island waters.

But help was on the way.

In 1980, the Narragansett Bay Water Quality District Commission is formed. Enough is enough. From that point forward the tone of the story change dramatically. It was a beginning -- a time of great progress, marked by education and technological advances. 

From its inception, the core mission of the Narragansett Bay Commission has been constant. That is, to “maintain a leadership role in the protection and enhancement of water quality in Narragansett Bay and its tributaries by providing safe and reliable wastewater collection and treatment services to its customers at a reasonable cost.”

Leah Foster, CPA, is Controller at the Narragansett Bay Commission. Foster explains that the agency’s mission of “water quality” has expanded in scope over time.

“This is still the agency’s overarching goal,” said Foster. “However, over the course of the last thirty-five years, the NBC has evolved into a leader in water quality monitoring, fiscal management, alternative energy, and environmental education.”

The creation of the NBC was made possible only after a commitment on the part of the  State of RI as an investment in water quality. The NBC, explains Foster, is funded by ratepayers.

“All the money for the agency’s operations and capital projects come from the home and business owners in the ten cities and towns that the NBC serves,” she said. “The positive effects of the NBC’s work and our ratepayers’ investments, though, are felt by all Rhode Islanders and everyone who enjoys Narragansett Bay for work or pleasure.”

That investment has paid dividends. Consider that when the General Assembly created the NBC in 1980, Narragansett Bay suffered from severely degraded water quality. The Providence Sewage Treatment Facility -- now the NBC’s Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility -- was deemed by the U.S. EPA as the second worst municipal pollution problem in New England. Valuable shellfishing acres were lost to pollution and unsightly floatable pollution washed up on beaches after every rain storm. In less than 15 years after the NBC was created, Field’s Point was named the best wastewater treatment facility in its category in the nation.

The impressive numbers don’t stop there. Today, beach closures are down by over 85 percent, and shellfishing access has been dramatically improved, leading to more than a 200 percent increase in the value of quahog landings in Rhode Island.

“We have the most sophisticated water quality sciences operations in New England, allowing us unprecedented precision when analyzing water quality,” said Foster.

In addition, Foster said that within five years the NBC plans to rely solely on renewable forms of energy: wind, solar, and biogas. All of this has required leveraging the best, most innovative, and most cost effective clean water technologies. 

Accolades have come from near and far.

For the past 14 years respectively, the NBC has received the Distinguished Budget Presentation and Excellence in Financial Reporting Awards from the Government Finance Officers Association. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies has three times awarded the NBC with its Excellence in management Award -- the NBC is one of only seven agencies nationwide to receive this distinction three times. The U.S. EPA has recognized the NBC for excellence in pretreatment, wastewater treatment, and clean water contributions to Narragansett Bay. NBC’s construction projects, notably the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) project, the Integrated Fixed Film Activated Sludge (IFAS) project, and the three 1.5 MW wind turbines at Field’s Point have been repeatedly awarded for excellence in engineering and water quality improvement. Community-based projects like the NBC’s national award winning environmental education program for elementary school students, the SNAPSHOT website that provides the public with real-time water quality data for Upper Narragansett Bay, and documentary videos on clean water also bring acclaim. From 2011-2016, the NBC has been named one of the state’s “Best Places to Work” by the Providence Business News and in 2013 was one of only sixteen organizations nationwide to receive UnitedHealthcare’s “Well Deserved” award for demonstrating an exceptional commitment to employee health and well-being. 

Foster credits the success of the NBC to leadership and a staunch commitment to that original mission. Under the leadership of Chairman Vincent Mesolella, said Foster, the 19-member volunteer board continues to map out a robust and active clean water agenda which includes “environmental excellence, fiscal responsibility, and community engagement.”

“The Board, and NBC’s dedicated employees take very seriously the fact that Rhode Island is the Ocean State, and the NBC’s facilities are the last line of defense in protecting Narragansett Bay, an Estuary of National Significance, from point source pollution,” said Foster. “However, the job does not stop there: it extends to the historic urban rivers of Providence and the Blackstone Valley.”

Foster points to the NBC’s award–winning Chairman’s River Restoration Initiative as having a positive impact on the entire watershed of this American Heritage River and other water bodies in the state. NBC-sponsored river clean-ups, education programs, community activities and legislation have brought hundreds of citizens, artists and students to view their local water bodies as valuable community resources, she said. Additionally, the NBC’s monitoring programs provide real-time data on a variety of water quality criteria for Narragansett Bay and the Providence, Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck, and Seekonk Rivers.

“Through NBC’s development of a hydrodynamic model of upper Narragansett Bay and its tributaries in conjunction with respected scientists from the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, we are able to predict key patterns from the effect of coliform bacteria, nutrients and other pollutants on Narragansett Bay,” said Foster. 

A fascinating read, to be sure.