PROVIDENCE — For US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, it’s easy to point to why Rhode Island’s infrastructure grade has been so low, including a grade of “C+” from the American Society of Civil Engineers last year for the state’s drinking water.
“The thing that holds us back has always been resources. Plain and simple,” he told the Globe in an interview Friday. “For years, we’ve been patching and filling in the gaps here and there.”
He recalled wooden water piping extracted during building projects over the years, and said he didn’t think he could even estimate of how many water pipes should be replaced in the state, or how much it would cost.
“We’ve got a lot of pent up work that we simply haven’t had the resources to get done,” said Whitehouse.
Whitehouse and fellow Senator Jack Reed on Friday announced that they had secured nearly $22 million from the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations law to upgrade Rhode Island’s water infrastructure. Whitehouse said he hopes the funding will help the state get started working on “the literally centuries old” issues.
On Friday at the Save the Bay facility in Providence, Rhode Island senators said it was critical to press Congress for “significant” federal clean water investments in the upcoming infrastructure bill. Some of those investments, they are hoping, will help communities replace 10 million miles of lead pipe service lines within the next 10 years.
President Biden’s current infrastructure plan designates $111 billion for clean and safe drinking water.
“Rhode Island has a long and unfortunate history with lead poisoning and lead contamination. And as a state with old infrastructure, there is a lot of lead piping. With $111 billion, our share of that will go along way to cleaning up that lead poisoning problem that Rhode Island children have suffered for so long,” said Whitehouse, who is also a member of the Senate’s environment and public works committee.
Jeff Diehl, chief executive of the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, said the federal money will help the state invest more than $95 million to clean water upgrades, with $65 million of that going toward upgrading wastewater treatment centers. The rest will help mobilize private sector capital to ensure clean water for students in Foster and Glocester schools; replace lead pipes in Providence; expand a zero-interest loan for homeowners in Providence to eliminate lead pipes on their properties; upgrade drinking facilities in Newport, Westerly, and Portsmouth; and provide affordable solutions to improve drinking water systems in lower-income communities that are serviced by wells across the state.
The Narragansett Bay Commission, which started its three-phase CSO program to improve water quality in Narragansett Bay in 2001, will break ground on its third and final phase this June, Vincent Mesolella, chairman of the Commission, announced Friday. This final phase will focus on the construction of the Pawtucket Tunnel underneath Pawtucket and Central Falls, and will eventually store almost 60 million gallons of combined sewer overflows.
While the US Senate is expected to advance the bipartisan Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act, authorizing $35 billion for drinking water and wastewater projects, Reed and Whitehouse say more infrastructure investments in water are needed to address the “inadequate and aging water delivery systems in communities around the country.”
“We don’t see the toxic hazards invading our bays or waterways,” said Reed Friday. “But significant investments are needed to install, upgrade and replace infrastructure to continue to ensure resilience that we have access to safe drinking water and so that communities have the resources they need to protect public health and the environment.”
Rhode Island will also receive $10.77 million through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) and $11 million through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Both SRFs are designed to make short-term and long-term investments in communities to provide financial savings for clean water and drinking water projects that protect public health, conserve local watersheds, and preserve the environment.
“The commitment is to ensure that no one is drinking water from a lead line in the future,” said Reed. “We are more committed to ensuring that we optimize our systems again to ensure that there’s no repetition of Michigan, where thousands were literally poisoned, particularly children, because of their exposure to lead.”
He added, “Clean water is essential for our public health and our economy. We have to do more and we will do more.”