CLICK HERE for the original article in the Jamestown Press.
For the 400 people living on Conanicut Island in the late 19th century, water wasn’t a problem.
At least 24 springs flowed freely. Some farmers dammed streams to create ponds, while others dug wells and erected windmills for pumping.
Even as the town developed into a resort, water was not a major concern. The first hotels used wells and nearby streams, including the watercourses that gave Brook and Spring streets their names.
As the density in the village increased, however, those nearby sources were not enough. The immediate problem was distribution, not availability.
A private water company, which ultimately would be purchased by the town for $300,000 in 1970, was formed in 1888 to deal with the problem. The initial plans were simple — build a reservoir on higher ground at the south end of Green Lane. That would allow gravity to bring the water to the hotels and homes along the waterfront.
The town, however, wanted hydrants for public safety and water service at town hall, which was built in 1883 on higher ground than the proposed reservoir. Homeowners and businessmen away from the waterfront also wanted piped water.
A larger reservoir and a pumping station were clearly necessary.
Clarke’s pond, a dammed spring west of Southwest Avenue, became the first reservoir. A pumping station was built next to it and water mains were laid on the major village streets as far north as the Bay Voyage. A water tank was built on Howland Avenue where the towers are located today. Water was raised to the tank and fed by gravity through the mains.
When the water was activated in August 1890, the Newport Journal reported, “There will probably be no lack of water for consumers in Jamestown hereafter.”
Not true. By 1899, water use outstripped capabilities. The Jamestown Water Company bought two reservoirs — now the North and South ponds — to keep up with demand. In 1914, it replaced the old water tower with a 250,000-gallon tank, an increase of more than 20 percent. The company expanded the system west of North Road, north to the Great Creek and south onto Beavertail.
There were no major problems until the Newport Bridge opened in 1969. Because the population in Jamestown almost doubled between 1970 and 2000, the water supply became inadequate.
The problem reached crisis proportion with the 1993 drought. Despite an outdoor watering ban in August, the reservoirs continued to drop. National Guard troops began trucking 85,000 gallons of water per day in September. A temporary line across the Jamestown bridge brought in water purchased from North Kingstown. Residential water bills tripled.
There were more permanent improvements installed in the late 1990s. Town wells and a higher dam at North Pond increased the water capacity. Efficient toilets and faucets were mandated. Irrigation systems without private wells were banned. Progressively restrictive bans on outdoor watering went into effect.
Most municipal water came from North Pond, although the southern watershed is larger. Unfortunately, that reservoir contains vegetation particulates that clogged the treatment plant’s filters. In 2001, the town began to pump the water from South Pond into the north reservoir, increasing the supply by about one-third. The mixed water was more easily processed, although the old filters still clogged during the 2002 drought. Once again, the town purchased water from North Kingstown.
A new high-tech treatment plant that can produce 500,000 gallons of clean water daily came online in May 2009. A second water tower and the implementation of a plan to replace all the water mains by 2045 increased delivery efficiency.
Yet, water supply is a continuing problem. The average resident uses 39 gallons of water each day. The North Pond has usable storage of 60 million gallons. The moderate drought in 2016 reduced the water capacity to fewer than 20 million gallons, or about a 60-day supply at peak demand.