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Friday, May 13, 2011

Science reality check on the YMCA controversy

As Tom noted, Google's blog service (the one we use) has had a serious melt-down. The system was down for 48 hours and a lot of material, including some Progressive Charlestown postings and comments, were lost, at least temporarily. Though there is some chance the material will be restored, I wanted to re-post testimony from URI professor Art Gold who criticized the dubious science used to attack the YMCA camp proposal discussed at Monday's Town Council meeting. Here is that post:

[Editor's note: a lot of uninformed and sometimes downright false remarks were presented by the opposition to the proposal to convert the derelict YMCA camp on Watchaug Pond into tasteful, low-density housing that also preserves most of the camp land as permanent open space. Art Gold knows the Pond's biochemistry and had hoped to present this testimony before the Council meeting last Monday before they took the vote to reject the project. Here is his testimony in full]:

President Gentz;    Chairperson Platner;
Members of the Town Council and Planning Commission.

May 9, 2011
I am Art Gold. Professor of Watershed Hydrology at URI. I direct the Extension Water Quality Program at URI. I initiated and staffed the URI Watershed Watch program that trains and supports the volunteers who monitor the water quality of Watchaug Pond and most of the other fresh water in the state. I am now the Faculty Research Advisor to Watershed Watch. I also work with many national and international projects engaged in water quality protection.

I am  speaking to you today for two reasons. The first is out of admiration and friendship for two residents of Watchaug Pond – Bart Hurley and Ted Veazey.  The second reason is because of my strong commitment to the application of science to protect and restore our water resources.  I am here as a scientist and not as a consultant.  I met both Bart and Ted in the late 80’s.  Bart was a special individual with a keen interest in improving Watchaug Pond.  He monitored the Pond for many years and he was constantly learning, questioning and assisting with our watershed and lake protection programs.  I went out on the Pond with Bart on several occasions to examine the shoreline development and potential water quality risks.  Ted and I met just as our first sons were born.  We share a great appreciation for the environment and we brought our 4 boys on many canoeing, camping and hiking trips. 
Last  January, Ted gave me a tour of the YMCA property and we discussed his plans. At that time, I recommended he consider a conservation-style development, set back from the water, with relatively low density. 
What are the threats to Watchaug Pond?  As a watershed scientist,  I look at high risk locations – potential hot spots of pollution of pathogens that threaten human health and of phosphorus inputs that can stimulate algal blooms.  High on my potential hotspot list are summer and seasonal camps, near the shore that rely on onsite wastewater treatment.  Why summer camps? Septic systems are microbial and soil-based ecosystems. They work best with routine inputs of wastewater.  And they work best when they are dealing with relatively low flows such as from single family homes.  Bursts of high activity, such as occur during big weekends or for several peak weeks in the summer can overwhelm the microbial community and soil infiltration capacity and cause treatment and hydraulic failure.  What results? Ponded sewage or shallow, subsurface channels that bring untreated wastewater to the nearest drain or stream. 
What is the current water quality of Watchaug Pond? I reviewed the chlorophyll data collected by your Watershed Watch volunteers between 2000 and 2009.  These data are online at the URI Watershed Watch website and available to the public.  Here is the weblink:
Chlorophyll data quantify the mass of algae in the pond and concentrations are linked to summer levels of phosphorus in the pond.  Watchaug Pond has good to average water quality.  It is right in the middle of the 65 plus freshwater ponds and lakes monitored by Watershed Watch.  Of note, I observed that Watchaug Pond experienced algal blooms, extensive growths of algae that markedly reduce water clarity, during two summers between 2000 and 2009.  Please recognize that Watchaug is susceptible to further degradation.  None of us want to see Watchaug Pond deteriorate to a level where algal blooms are routine.
Summer camps warrant careful and routine vigilance to assure public health and to protect pond water quality.  Without proper siting, maintenance and use they can be pollution sources to the pond.  What represents a very low risk to the pond?  A low density residential development where septic systems are hundreds of feet away from the shoreline, where the inflow to each septic system is relatively small and where minimal disturbance occurs within the shoreline buffer.  This is what occurs in a conservation development.  This is what Ted proposes for the property.
As you deliberate on the best use of this property over the next 10 or even 25 years, I feel confident in recommending conservation developments as a way to protect Watchaug Pond.  Summer camps require special attention and monitoring and pose substantially higher risks to the Pond.
I urge the Council to approve a conservation development on Watchaug Pond rather than continue to leave the door open to a summer or year round camp.