Newport, Rhode Island

The late afternoon and the entire evening of “Changing Currents” Day 3 was spent in the car, traveling North from the Nation’s Capital. As a result, we didn’t arrive at our destination, Providence, Rhode Island, until well after midnight.

Much of the following day was spent recuperating at our hotel and catching up on correspondence, editing photos, reviewing video footage, and generally getting squared away for Day 4 of filming, which we spent at the beach!

A 45-minute drive due East from our hotel led us to our meeting with John Rumpler, the Clean Water Program Director and Senior Attorney for Environment America, a Boston-based organization that lobbies all levels of government on environmental protection issues.

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On this day, Rumpler, himself a native Rhode Islander, was kind enough to drive down from Boston to demonstrate in person the connections between rivers and other parts of the ecosystem.

“The threats to river health,” Rumpler explained, “depend upon where you are.”

For example, the beach in Newport, a picturesque location on the Atlantic seaboard considered the crown jewel of Rhode Island, is closed at least several times a year because after large rain events, raw sewage is sometimes released directly into Narragansset Bay.

All of Rhode Island’s rivers eventually empty into the Atlantic Ocean, which means that population growth, development pressures, and storm water runoff from the many communities upriver, all culminate on the coast.

Therefore, heavy rains and occasional floods cause the water treatment systems in coastal towns such as Newport to become overwhelmed. Consequently, to prevent sewage from backing up into the homes of residents, Newport, and neighboring communities such as Middletown, are left with no choice but to allow raw sewage to overflow directly into the water right on Newport Beach.

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“Across this country today, 43 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, we still have sewage overflows,” Rumpler said. “I don’t want to be swimming in sewage. There are lots of cases around the country where people get sick because of sewage in the water.”

Sewage is not the only problem, however. Other threats include pesticides used in agricultural areas, source pollution in industrial areas, as well as what the grease, oil, or chemicals that the average person might flush down the drain.

A lawsuit in which Rumpler and Environmental America were involved prompted the City of Newport to agree to a long-term, multi-million dollar binding commitment to upgrade the local water treatment facilities.

Everyone has a role to play, said Rumpler, and it all begins with awareness.

“We need to understand how interconnected our waterways are,” Rumpler said. “We need to continue to protect all of our waterways.”

To see more photos of our time in Rhode Island, please visit our Rhode Island gallery page.