Climate change in the Northeast U.S. is expected to influence hydrology and water resources through a host of drivers, including: increases in temperature; greater severity of drought; wetter dormant seasons; more severe storms and rising sea levels. These changes present great challenges for stakeholders who rely on the functions and values of the water resources within the Region. The Executive Summary of the 2008 IPCC Report: Technical Paper IV: Climate Change and Water ( states, “Current water management practices may not be robust enough to cope with the impacts of Climate Change on water supply, reliability, flood risk, health, agriculture, energy and aquatic ecosystems.” URI will address these challenges. Rhode Island relies on its rural lands to provide safe drinking water and sustain the water quality of estuaries and freshwater systems that provide valuable opportunities for recreation and commercial use (e.g., fishing). But, the compressed geography, population density and lack of county government present major challenges for water quality protection. In addition, the historic approaches to private well development, unsewered wastewater treatment practices and agricultural waste  management generate high risks for ground and surface water contamination. Research will focus on watershed patterns and processes that affect the fate of nonpoint contaminants and approaches to assess the effects contaminants and disturbance on surface water ecosystems and groundwater. Research methods include lab and field studies as well as inventories, remote sensing studies and GIS. Extension programs, in cooperation with stakeholders and partner agencies, identify needs and build upon successful local programs to create and disseminate new materials, tools and curricula for use throughout New England. We seek to deliver an integrated water quality program that educates, empowers, and engages agricultural producers, residents and communities throughout New England to become effective stewards of their local water resources.

Situation and priorities

The IPCC (2008) predicts that higher water temperatures, increased precipitation intensity, and longer periods of low flows will increase the risks of water pollution from watershed based nonpoint sources. Altered flow regimes can lead to changes in residence time and dilution capacity. Our aquatic ecosystems, both freshwater and estuaries, will be more susceptible to algal blooms, hypoxia and pathogen contamination – with consequences for local water supplies, recreation, biodiversity and human health. The activities of volunteer monitoring through Watershed Watch and watershed modeling through S-1042 – have never been more important. Stakeholders need locally-relevant information to target and manage sensitive aquatic resources and to be able to identify and manage areas likely to be at increased risk of serving as pollution sources in the future. An increase in the length and severity of drought, rising
sea level and increased storm intensity pose risks to rural water supplies, warranting information that targets these locations and management practices to protect and maximize existing water supplies. Advances in siting and design for on-site wastewater systems can mitigate the risks associated with intense weather extremes attributed to climate change. Advanced treatment systems offer the potential for reuse of treated wastewater that can conserve potable water supplies of a rural community, but this requires training of stakeholders in the proper use of these technologies.

Goals of this Program
  • Our long term goal is to strengthen URI’s capacity to deliver an integrated water quality program that educates, empowers, and engages agricultural producers, residents and communities throughout New England to become effective stewards of their local water resources and to address risks posed by land use, climatic variability and climate change.
  • Research will improve the capacity of land managers and community decision makers to understand and manage water quality and hydrologic risks associated with climate variability and climate change on rural and mixed use watersheds

Research investigations focus on watershed patterns and processes that affect the fate of nitrogen and environmental flows. Research methods include lab and field studies as well as geospatial analyses.

Extension programs create locally relevant programs focused on land and community management. In cooperation with stakeholders and partner agencies, we will identify needs and build upon successful local programs to create and disseminate new materials, tools and curricula in RI and New England. Our water quality programs will continue development, delivery, training and application of proven water quality management tools and techniques such as:

  •  Develop of curricula and training on best management practices (BMPs) for conventional and alternative and innovative onsite waste water treatment
  • Public outreach and training on stormwater management
  • Development of curricula and training regarding private wells
  • Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring
Water Quality Program

Water Quality ProgramTake the results of recent research and successful strategies for pollution control, make it available to those who need it, and apply it to solve water quality problems facing Rhode Islanders. That is the focus of the University of Rhode Island’s Cooperative Extension Water Quality Program. Educational Training Programs, publications, and events are designed to protect and improve the State’s water quality – from its groundwater supplies, drinking water reservoirs, lakes, rivers, and streams, to swimming beaches and shellfishing areas in and around Narragansett Bay and Block Island Sound.

Environmental Data Center

The Environmental Data Center (EDC) is a geographic information system (GIS) laboratory in the URI Department of Natural Resources Science, College of the Environment and Life Sciences. The mission of the EDC is to support the use of contemporary tools of spatial data processing in the analysis of environmental data. This is achieved through collaborative research with faculty in the Department of Natural Resources Science and projects with agencies external to URI. The EDC is the center of technical expertise in GIS for the state of Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Geographic Information Systems (RIGIS) database is stored at the EDC. The RIGIS database is the most comprehensive and detailed of any state in the country and contains information on almost all aspects of Rhode Island’s natural and cultural resources (e.g., wetlands, aquifers, soils, forests, land use, topography, historic sites, etc.). Major areas of research at the EDC are spatial data modeling, ecological mapping, and data integration for environmental applications.

The Northeast Climate Hub
URI is one of 14 land grant universities participating in the Northeast Climate Hub of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which delivers science-based knowledge and practical information to farmers and forest managers. URI’s role in the Northeast Climate Hub is to share information about climate adaptation approaches with landowners and other Hub members, and to collaborate with Hub members in the development of new adaptation approaches. Dr. Deborah Sheely, Associate Dean for Extension, manages the URI team which currently includes Bill Buffum and Peggy Siligato. For more information about the USDA Climate Hubs, see NE Climate Hub website. For more information about URI involvement in the Hub, see a URI case study on the use of high tunnels in Rhode Island, or a
briefing paper on how climate change is expected to affect forest tree species in Rhode Island.

Dr. Arthur J. Gold
Professor and Chair, Co-director of the CELS Master of Environmental Science and Management Graduate Program
Natural Resources Science
Room 107 Coastal Institute