Remnants of Indian settlement put Riverview sewers on hold

Warwick Beacon Online
by John Howell
January 28, 2009

Discovery of what is believed to have been a major American Indian encampment has put the breaks on plans to bring sewers to a section of Riverview but despite that setback, the Warwick Sewer Authority is moving forward with three projects. The authority is also prepared to add a fourth if the City Council allows them to borrow an additional $6 million or the federal stimulus package comes up with the money.

The project placed on hold – Bayside I – would have brought sewers to 450 homes south of Buckeye Brook and roughly bounded by the brook with Narragansett Bay to the east, Van Zandt Avenue to the south and Hope Avenue to the west. The project was designed as a gravity feed system with lines feeding into an interceptor running down Tidewater Drive to a pumping station at the intersection with West Shore Road.

An archaeological survey of the area performed by the Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL) identified potentially significant Native American and historic period sites. The company concludes the findings are such, “that will require evaluation and for eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places as the project precedes.”

“It’s a balancing act between the need of modern world and the need of modern world to protect antiquities and this historical culture,” says John Brown, preservation officer for the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

He asks, “How is it going to benefit the Narragansett Tribe, because we are a living tribe?” And, he adds, “Anywhere you dig [you are] going to hit the bones of the Narragansetts; anywhere you tread you are going to tread on the Narragansetts.”

Meanwhile, some homeowners are questioning when they will get sewers and what they should do about aging or failing septic systems.

“With so much uncertainty we don’t know what to tell them,” said Janine Burke, executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority. Burke, along with other authority staff, PAL senior archaeologist Alan Leveille and Todd Ravenelle of the civil and environmental engineering firm of Gordon R. Archibald, Inc., conducted an informational meeting Dec. 2 with area residents.

At this point, explains James Feeney, program manager for the sewer authority, “we’re taking a step back and looking at the alternatives.”

The area presents challenges, because as Feeney points out, “anywhere you go you’re going to have to look at it [the historic aspects of the area].” An option under consideration is a low-pressure system that would negate the need for deep trenching and give contractors the flexibility to go around features encountered without disturbing them.

A drawback to a low-pressure system is that it requires the homeowner to have a low-pressure pump. The pumps would be bought and installed by the sewer authority, but would become the property and responsibility of the homeowner.

Leveille says the fact that 14 machine-dug trenches and six hand excavations revealed evidence of the Shawomet Indians is not surprising. He notes that history books of the Shawomets and the armed conflict of the King Philip’s War in 1675 indicate their presence in the area.

But Leveille says, “there is a relatively high density of features” that would indicate a concentration of people that could go back thousands of years.

Among those features and items found are: calcined bone fragments, chipping debris, a granitic hammerstone, post molds indicating the presence of wigwams, burnt areas where there were fires, shell deposits and aboriginal ceramics.

“These are areas of serious concern to us, EPA and the Narragansetts. The Tribe is working with us to approach any areas that are spiritual places and to give our full and serious consideration,” said Leveille.

The area with two fresh water ponds and close proximity to the bay with its fish and shellfish seems like a natural for human habitation.

“It’s clearly a beautiful place to live,” says Leveille.

But, he notes today’s landowners are “temporary residents” and that the neighborhood may have supported human habitation for the last 8,000 years.

“We, in a sense, are stewards of the past,” he said.

Brown said the tribe is waiting to see how the Environmental Protection Agency proceeds under the regulations as set forth by the National Historic Preservation Act.

“We’re looking for some solutions,” said Brown. “We have to be able to meet somewhere down trail and come to an agreement and stick to an agreement.”

How and when that will play out is not known. Burke said the authority has talked with the Department of Environmental Management and the agency is aware of the delays residents will face in getting sewers. Nonetheless, homeowners are responsible for maintaining their septic systems.

The authority is prepared to move ahead with construction of three projects – Governor Francis Farms II and III and Sandy Lane – this year. With $11.5 million available in authorized funding for construction, the authority has enough to cover the projected total cost of $10.2 million, but falls short of what would be required to initiate the next project on the list – Longmeadow at a projected cost of $3.6 million.

Longmeadow is adjacent to the bayside projects and the Riverview area where there is so much evidence of Native American activity. It is at a higher elevation and that system, rather than flowing into an interceptor running down Tidewater Drive, is designed to flow southwest into the existing interceptor in Warwick Neck Avenue.

Longmeadow is one of several “shovel ready” projects Mayor Scott Avedisian listed as part of $50 million in capital improvements should federal stimulus funding become available to the city.

At this point Burke and Feeney aren’t holding their breath for a check from Washington. Burke would like to move ahead. She is preparing to seek City Council authorization to borrow an additional $6 million. Unlike general obligation bonds that require voter approval, the authority in recent years has turned to revenue bonds to underwrite capital improvement projects including upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant and expansion of the system. Principal and interest costs of these loans are paid for with assessments and operating revenues.

Where the authority ran into problems in the past is that it didn’t revise the linear foot assessment rate on new sewers to compensate for the increasing cost of construction. This meant instead of being self-sufficient the city had to assume some of the authority’s debt costs.

“It’s being run like a business,” says Feeney, explaining that assessment rates will be truly reflective of the cost of building a system. However, the authority looks to group projects so that costs are spread over a larger base. That way the average assessment rate is evenly applied rather than fluctuating depending on the complexity and expense of each project.

Adding the Longmeadow contract with the capability of connecting another 480 homes would enable the authority to include the cost of a fourth project in setting an assessment rate. Further, as Burke notes, it would act to contain costs to property owners, as delaying projects is likely to mean higher costs.

Also critical to authority finances are usage fees. Despite efforts to get connect capable property owners to tie into the system, an estimated 40 percent still haven’t. Feeney said the authority is looking to make a low cost loan program available to cover the average $2,000 cost of tying into the system as well as imposing a “connect capable fee” for those who don’t connect.

As for the Riverview neighborhood and what has been dubbed the “Mill Cove Site,” Brown says he has not talked with sewer authority representatives since last summer.

He said that Mill Cove is, “one of many sites that needs to be investigated.” He added, “There’s a responsibility to our living community [the Narragansetts] that just happened to be there first. We’re committed to getting the deal done.”