Rhode Island district helps maintain statewide high water quality standards

The Northern Rhode Island Conservation District (NRICD) has developed a partnership with the city-owned Providence Water Supply Board and the State of Rhode Island that will utilize $2.9 million from a U.S. Forest Service grant to continue improving water quality in the Scituate Reservoir Watershed by providing easements to landowners who are managing their forests.

“Private landowners who are actively engaged in the management of their forests are less likely to engage in activities that negatively impact water quality,” NRICD Agriculture and Forestry Program Manager Kate Sayles said. “This is why this partnership is so important.”

In the past, Rhode Island has been identified as having some of the highest water quality in the northeast, likely due to the management of the 93 acres of forestland surrounding the reservoir. Providence Water Supply Board is the largest water supplier in Rhode Island, serving 60 percent of the state’s population. It owns one-third of the watershed and has been actively involved in ensuring the proper management of the land through forest management strategies, land conservation with fee-simple purchases or conservation easements for watershed protection and through water sampling and studies to monitor water quality.

The remaining two-thirds of the watershed is privately owned and comprised of residential neighborhoods with large sections of privately-owned forests and more than 200 farms. That’s where NRICD comes in.

“Forests are essential elements to maintaining water quality, and the types of land uses surrounding drinking water reservoirs are critical to drinking water for the state,” Sayles said. “Some landowners don’t even know where to start.”

For the last decade, NRICD has partnered with Providence Water Supply Board on outreach and education strategies funded through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs that encourage private landowners to implement forest stewardship strategies.

As the outreach arm, NRICD has sent mailings, visited properties, worked with schools, and encouraged landowners to apply for programs that will improve or sustain the reservoir water quality.

Programs vary depending on the individual landowner, but the goal is “conservation approaches that improve water quality through forest management,” Sayles said. “Some programs provide general technical assistance, while others use innovative approaches to get landowners to consider forest management.”

From 2013 to 2017, NRICD utilized an NRCS conservation technical assistance grant to work with reservoir landowners to apply for and implement forest management plans, including identifying appropriate well locations, addressing animal management practices, and making landscape-scale decisions rather than just focusing on one parcel. In that time, more than 1,930 landowners were assisted, and NRICD continues to manage those contracts.

This past summer, the state received a grant through the U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy program to focus on easements on the Scituate Reservoir Watershed. The 2017 grant application identified 716 acres on 14 targeted properties. The project has prompted Providence Water Supply Board to request NRICD’s outreach assistance once again, and another application to assist 407 acres comprised of 11 parcels is being submitted this fall.

Sayles has followed up with the forester for each property owner to better understand the landowner’s goals and determine which, if any, forest management practices have occurred to date. Each plan has a comprehensive water quality section, outlining management depending on the location within the watershed.

NRICD holds field days, walks and tours and has partnered with individual landowners currently operating under a management plan with a goal of affecting water quality to speak with anyone who may have questions about the process or implementation, Sayles said.

“We receive at least two contacts a month for landowners in the watershed who are interested in learning more, and have a lot of interest in forest management after hosting outreach events,” she said. “Managing forests overall creates a multitude of benefits, and water quality is an important aspect of that.”

Tags: Forestry, Forestry Notes

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