Lack of fresh water on Block Island could limit tourism, URI researcher claims

South County

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — A new study on Block Island may force the community to reduce the number of tourists that visit the island and future residential development.

A University of Rhode Island (URI) hydrogeologist is conducting an assessment of the availability of fresh water on the island due to a concern between the growing number of visitors and the effects of climate change.

Thomas Boving, a professor of geosciences at URI, is leading an effort to evaluate how much water is being pumped from the six wells owned by the Block Island Water Company, which provides half of the island’s water needs.

Boving is also looking at how much water is available in area wells, how quickly they are recharged and how likely salt water is to get into the drinking water supply.

“Almost all of the fresh water on Block Island comes from rain, but if the islanders pump more water than can be recharged by precipitation, they’re going to drain the bathtub, and that’s what’s happening now,” Boving said.

Due to the number of tourists that visit the island, the demand for fresh water is increasing yearly, according to Boving. During July and August, the water company can barely meet demand.

A big unknown about the water supply on Block Island is the effect of climate change. Boving said the increase of frequent strong storms could deliver more rainwater to the island and recharge the aquifer, but it’s also possible that a lot runs off the surface and into the ocean before it can make its way into the aquifer.

Warming temperatures could also result in more evaporation, which could further deplete the island’s water resources, Boving added.

Boving and graduate student Jibban Panthi are installing electronic devices into several wells on the island to measure how quickly the they are recharged, how much water is pumped and how much water is lost to evaporation, among other key factors.

“If the people pump too much water and they start getting salt water, then those wells will have to be shut down,” Boving said. “We’re trying to see if there have been changes over time and what that will mean for the wells and the island in general.”

They are also conducting a geo-electrical resistivity survey of the island’s coastline to track how far inland the ocean water intrudes beneath the surface.

Boving said one surprising factor affecting water availability is all of the visiting boaters who fill their tanks with fresh water.

“Much of the water used on the island ends up returning to the aquifer via the sewage system, but boaters take water away and it never returns,” Boving said. “That’s a factor we need to consider as well.”

What is uncovered throughout the research will give them an idea of what the future of the island is.

“It will tell us whether we need to ring the alarm about limiting the number of people visiting and living on the island,” Boving said. “The residents are very aware of the issue, and it’s something they’re going to have to come to terms with.”

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