The issue of invasive weeds known as phragmites causing blockages that lead to flooding and other environmental concerns in and around Warwick Pond and its tributary, Buckeye Brook, has been ongoing in earnest since 2016, and some voiced concerns even before then.
Today, pending a permit approval from the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), an action plan to deal with the phragmites is gearing up to handle the issue, but not everyone agrees about whether that plan will work in the long term.
At the Warwick City Council meeting on Monday Ashlee Tyce, professional engineer for EA Engineering, Science, and Technology, Inc. – which has been a contracted consultant for the city regarding the issue for the past two and a half years – spoke about the problem at hand and the engineering firm’s progress in tackling it.
Tyce said that studies have confirmed water levels in the pond have been on the rise and that fish passage from Buckeye Brook into the pond have been continually decreasing year to year, and that the culprit is indeed a common species of phragmites that is notorious for being incredibly fast-growing, far-reaching and extremely difficult to get rid of in a lasting way.
The increased water levels have resulted in flooding and erosion issues around the pond, most notably on properties along Lakeshore Drive that have plagued residents and required remediation attempts from the city, which has included raising the level of the road up to a whole foot in certain places.
Tyce then broke down the plan they look to initiate in order to remove a 1.5-acre block of phragmites, which she says their studies indicate should lower the water levels enough through promoting increased water flow velocity to prevent flooding, which should also help encourage healthier fish runs as they would no longer be obstructed by a large field of invasive weeds.
To do this, the project must be approved by DEM in order to make alterations to a wetland, which has among the most stringent permit requirements in the state. Tyce said that the permit is under active review from DEM, and that she is hopeful they will receive approval by April 1. Once that happens, a 30-day notice for public comments commences.
If there are no additional significant concerns raised, the city could go out to bid for contractors to do the actual work – which Tyce said could commence as early as August 30 and conclude as early as October. She estimated the work in total would cost in the range of $825,000. EA Engineering would oversee the work, but the city would be in charge of choosing a contractor and paying them.
“This is an engineering cost estimate, but we have done our due diligence,” Tyce said.
If the process seems relatively straightforward, that is because the true complexity in this issue lies beneath the surface, much like the stingy root systems of the phragmites themselves, which are so hardy that they require treatment with targeted herbicides, physical removal of their entire root mass, containment and specialized disposal, as well as follow-up treatments with more herbicides in the area of removal – all to ensure that they don’t simply spread their seeds and grow back just as quickly.
The biggest issue of contention regarding the phragmites removal is who should be bearing the cost of remediation. The land in question is owned by the state, not the city. However, it is also part of T.F. Green’s property, which is operated by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC). There was speculation that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation could bear responsibility for a portion of the area, but others have cited law that disputes that claim.
The plan outlined in the paragraphs above would be paid for using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding that was acquired through disaster relief funding received by the city following the 2010 floods. Of the $2.7 million awarded through that funding, about $950,000 remains – according to Bill Facente of the city’s community development office – and with the estimated $825,000 price tag for the project, it would eat up most of the remaining funds.
Michael Zarum, president and chairman of the Buckeye Brook Coalition, a state-designated Watershed Council that seeks to protect and preserve the health of the brook and its watershed, says that the state should be on the hook to do more since the phragmites to be removed reside on state property.
“The property owner should step up to the plate and be responsible,” he said.
Zarum also warned that the plan lacks a comprehensive, long-term plan to address the likelihood that the phragmites will grow back.
However, Tyce mentioned during her presentation that EA has requested a five-year maintenance plan along with the permit for the initial removal that would allow the re-spraying of herbicide as needed, with the possibility to extend that plan for longer.
She said that re-applying herbicide ran in the range of around $15,000 – “a tiny portion of the initial construction project” – and that the airport and Federal Aviation Administration has a stake in keeping the phragmites from growing back as well, since they have five light towers to maintain and that they have already expressed concern about flooding issues at the base of the towers.
“That’s not a guarantee but something to think about,” Tyce said, referring to a possibility that the city could receive some form of federal funding due to that fact.
Zarum said that the follow-up treatments couldn’t be simply an afterthought but needed to be incorporated as part of a three-to-four-year program of removal. He said that, although he is not opposed the project currently under review, he believes a much larger scope is necessary to address all the issues caused by phragmites in Buckeye Brook.
“They should be doing a comprehensive stream restoration program, which should include hydrology, restoration of habitat, restoration of fish habitat and fish run and it should include a restoration of the recreational values that were lost, which means basically to restore the stream back to where it was before the phragmites came in,” he said. “They're going to spend a million dollars and the project will fail. They'll be right back in 2022 where they were in 2015.”
Zarum urged that even if DEM approves the permit for the work, it only means that the agency is satisfied it will not do additional harm to the environment.
“I want to be very clear that is DEM comes out and approves a permit, they're not approving that they think this proposal is going to work,” he said during public comments at the council meeting.
City Council President Steve Merolla pointed a finger at RIAC as the entity to blame for the buildup of fertile sediment that has expedited phragmites growth, and that they are the entity that should share some burden of responsibility for helping address the issue.
“I just see airport, airport, airport written all over this. When you say sediment and 'Where is the sediment coming from?' we know where the sediment is coming from. Because they changed the flows. They built fields. They tied into the drainage system,” Merolla said. “Here's another bill that we're expected to pay.”
When asked about the possibilities of the phragmites simply growing back, Tyce reiterated that she believed EA is going about the removal process in the most professional and effective way possible.
“The removal of the root wad for phragmites will significantly decrease its reoccurrence but it will not eliminate it. We are not removing phragmites along the entire length of the brook, but it will certainly decrease. We're not disposing of the phragmites on site or nearby, we're taking it offsite and isolating it on the construction site and covering it so the seeds can't be blown around and re-populate elsewhere,” she said.
“We're using all best management practices in the disposal of this invasive,” she continued. “We're treating it very seriously even though it is a common problem.”