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Thursday, August 18, 2022

Charlestown Chunks #8

Drought, fires, dead whales, mosquito-borne diseases. Ah, the joys of summer

By Will Collette

This eighth installment of Charlestown Chunks is another effort to report on smaller news items that really aren’t suitable on their own to get the full-length article treatment.

In my recent Charlestown Chunks #7 and in Summer Bummers, I ran down a collection of local stories that might be useful and maybe amusing to local readers. As it happens, there have been new developments on many of those items.

Let’s start with the biggest summer bummer so far, our persistent extreme drought that is lowering water levels, including drinking water. Westerly, Narragansett and South Kingstown have already imposed strict water conservation measures, but Charlestown needs to do that, too.

The dry weather adds to wildfire danger. On August 13, the Charlestown Fire District was called out to stop a 2.75 acre brushfire in Burlingame state park near the Hopkinton town line started from an illegal campfire. Ken Ayres, DEM chief for agriculture and forestry, says there have been 65 wildfires so far this year.

Despite the small amount of very welcome rain earlier this week, we face more fire danger because the dry ground, dead brush and low humidity create the conditions for more fire. Outdoor burning, even barbeques, are a bad idea right now.

Even though we all draw our water from wells, we are still affected. If you draw water faster than it can recharge, you may find your tap water starts to get cloudy, then muddy and then gone if the water level in your well falls below your submersible pump.

My well is 500 feet deep, but I still worry. We’ve had situations in years past where I have foolishly left sprinklers on too long and got punished with cloudy water. This also happens during some summers due to what we call the “Burlingame Effect” (we live down-gradient from the campground).

I’ve let my lawns to go to meadow and now have a lot of nice dry hay mixed in with wildflowers. I maintain a kitchen garden on the upper deck and water my tomatoes with buckets and try not to waste a drop.

Watering with a bucket is not an option for farmers and they are reporting high stress to crops like, for example, Christmas trees. Fruits and vegetables that survive the drought may be a lot smaller than usual.

Alex Nunes, South County Bureau chief for the Public’s Radio, reported on August 17 that:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to make a drought-related disaster declaration for the state of Rhode Island this week. That announcement will free up federal assistance for farmers, as much of the southern and eastern parts of the state remain under extreme drought conditions.


The state reports its first findings of West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) in mosquitoes. Unfortunately for Charlestown, the skeeters were found in our neighbors in Westerly and South Kingstown which means it’s probably here in Charlestown, too.

Drain any open water to deny them places to lay their eggs and use repellant. You do not want to catch West Nile or EEE.

The beach

Baywatch went off the air in 1999, before the current generation of teenagers were born. That might be one reason why local beaches are having so much trouble recruiting lifeguards. The beach at the Charlestown Breachway is now largely unguarded. Add Scarborough South State Beach, which is closing weekdays due to what DEM is calling a “shrinking summertime labor force.”

This comes even as DEM is revising its guidelines for eligibility to cut down on attrition.

The lack of lifeguards isn’t the only thing that might make the Charlestown Breachway beach less popular.

On August 8, a dead minke whale washed up on East Beach. Minkes are relatively small for whales – this one was 20 feet long. Mystic Aquarium volunteers performed a necropsy to determine cause of death and DEM had the whale buried on the beach where it was found.

Flood insurance

While this may seem to some that it’s silly to talk about flood insurance during an extreme drought, it’s actually the best time. While this year’s hurricane season has gotten off to a slow start, NOAA is predicting it will pick up in September and deliver some blasts of destruction.

WPRI released an investigative report that said one of ten Rhode Islanders have dropped their flood insurance coverage after recent rate hikes by FEMA:

“The number of policies statewide decreased from 11,104 on Dec. 31 to 10,133 on July 31, which is a decrease of almost 10%, according to data from the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency….

“Jon Nelson, professor of environmental studies at the Rhode Island School of Design… said areas with rivers, streams or creeks like Pawtucket, Foster, Providence, West Warwick and Hopkinton have seen the biggest increases in premiums…. Conversely, areas along the coast like Westerly, Warwick, Newport and Portsmouth have seen the biggest decreases.”

57.9% of Charlestown holders of FEMA flood coverage will see increases of $0-$10 a month.

Charlestown Housing and Zoning Officer Joe Warner has taken every available step to win the best FEMA rating for town residents which helps keep rates low. However, many shoreline owners have failed to take advantage of a federal cost-sharing program to raise their houses as a defense against storm surge.