Persistence pays off, or maybe the third time is the charm. Either way, the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which was flooded by the Pawtuxet River in 2010, will stand a better chance of surviving the next major storm.
City officials planned on taking the precautions regardless of their request for federal assistance. It only made sense after spending $14 million to restore the system and, with plans to spend another $11.3 million to improve treatment, that they would want to protect the investment.
But, listening to officials at the groundbreaking for improvements yesterday, it apparently took a lot of convincing to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to see that logic.
“It’s been a long and complicated process,” said Michelle Burnett, the state flood plain coordinator.
She said that, nationally, there are 100,000 miles of levees, of which, only five miles of them in Rhode Island. About a half-mile of that five miles provides a barrier between the Pawtuxet and the plant.
Soon after the flood, the city applied for mitigation funding from FEMA to heighten the levee. The application was denied. The city – meaning Janine Burke, director of the Warwick Sewer Authority, and Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong, the city’s emergency management director – didn’t give up. They submitted a second application. They turned to the state Congressional delegation and the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency in their lobbying efforts. Again, the city got shot down.
“This is a dynamo that made this process work,” said Senator Jack Reed.
Reed said added pressure came from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Describing the effects of the March 2010 storm, Reed said 75 million gallons filled the 15-acre plant site causing the city to close the sewer system. He said toilets couldn’t be flushed at Green Airport, observing, “What a way to welcome people to the state!” Port-a-johns were set up.
“We went to FEMA and they said, ‘No,’ and we went back and they said ‘No,’” he said.
The third appeal worked. Not only was the city to gain a commitment for $3.6 million [the levee work is budgeted at $3 million], but thanks to Reed, the funding covers 90 percent (rather than 75 percent) of the project. Reed estimates that should save Warwick about $600,000. The federal funds will also reduce the dependence on user fees to pay for the improvements.
The levee, which now stands about eight feet above ground level and 28 feet above the river, will be raised by more than five feet to protect the facility to the 500-year flood elevation. The work, which has already begun, will also modify the storm drain system and building a toe drain system to keep ground water below the inside portion of the levee. The levee portion of the job is slated for completion in December, with the upgrades to the plant completed by the spring of 2016.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse agreed that winning the grant wasn’t easy.
“This took a little more of a push than other things,” he said.
Curt Spalding, regional administrator of the EPA’s New England office, said he had only been on the job a few months when the floods hit.
“It was the kind of event that helps you learn,” he said, describing how there were few protocols or procedures on how to respond.
As Mayor Scott Avedisian said in his remarks, how quickly the city responded to the emergency and how the treatment plant was up and fully operational in six months was a marvel to Spalding. He applauded the additional $11.3 million investment the city is making to reduce the discharge of phosphorous and improve water quality.
The total cost of the two projects, including about $2 million in engineering, is $17 million, said Burke.
After a ceremonial groundbreaking, with cameras snapping, Spalding said the EPA is looking at wastewater treatment plants and other infrastructure with an eye to making them more resilient and to developing strategies for how to deal with climate change and rising sea levels.