Storms can threaten island wells

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 8:30am
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It’s that time of year again when hurricanes and storms become a concern.

With Hurricane Florence in the news, scientists are issuing warnings about the impact of storm surge and sea level rise on shorelines. If contaminants from storm surge and flooding pollute coastal water wells and aquifers, the result can lead to serious health risks and infrastructure issues.

One danger common to coastal water wells is the contamination, or salting of wells, caused by saltwater seeping into groundwater. Drinking heavily salinized water can lead to health problems, including high blood pressure, and cardiovascular and intestinal diseases.  

New Shoreham Water Company Superintendent John Breunig told The Block Island Times that storm surge is a concern for the town’s low-lying connections and private wells. “We generally shut off the water in the dock and marina area at Old Harbor where a connection is susceptible to breaking. We work with the property owner, and give them 24-hour notice before we shut it off. We’re also worried about the docks breaking.”

Breunig said that if a break occurs at the Old Harbor dock area when the water is not shut off it can create a major problem for the Water Company. “We shut the water off as a precaution,” he said, “due to concerns with the low-lying areas. It depends on the storm, but in general we’ll shut it off.” 

Breunig noted that Water Street is above where storm surge could harm the municipal water system, and that, “The Water Company’s wells are 120 feet above sea level. We don’t generally worry about our infrastructure, which is underground. We do reverse osmosis, so we’re desalinating water to begin with. So it’s not much of a concern” for the company’s infrastructure.

“We’re well prepared,” said Breunig, who calls himself a “weather nerd,” and almost pursued a degree in climatology. He said his favorite weather source is tropicaltidbits.com.

“We prepared for this hurricane days ago. I have trouble taking my eye off of large storms,” he said.

As for private wells, Breunig said there is not much a property owner can do to protect a well. “There are a handful of wells that I know about that could be inundated because they’re low-lying wells. The wells are where the wells are. If you have a low-lying well on your property, then it could be a problem after storm surge.”

Breunig said Hurricane Florence looks like it’s on track to do major damage to the Carolinas, much like Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans in 2005. He said when Hurricane Sandy hit the island in 2012 there weren’t any stories of water supply impact. Breunig also said the Water Company is required to contact the Rhode Island Department of Health with a report within 48 hours after a storm hits.

Joseph Wendelken, Public Information Officer at the Rhode Island Department of Health, said, “There is some general guidance that people can be aware of when it comes to wells and storms.”

He said people should stay away from the well pump if its flooded to avoid electric shock; avoid drinking or washing from the flooded well; get assistance from a well or pump contractor to clean and disinfect your well before turning on the pump after the storm; and after the pump is turned back on, pump the well until the water runs clear to rid the well of flood water. 

Wendelken said, “People can always call us at (401) 222-5960 with specific questions.”

The EPA also has some helpful guidance online at https://bit.ly/2x6AmQQ.