The Price Of Water
Six years ago, Evan Villari set out to tell the full story of how the Scituate Reservoir was created a century ago.
He wanted to lay it all out: the engineering, the workforce, and the sacrifices of hundreds of people who were forced out of their villages when their property was condemned, including some who took their own lives because of it.
Along the way, Villari began to question the effect of using lead pipes to deliver water to a third of the Providence Water Supply Board’s 75,000 retail customers. Was there an impact on the product arriving in people’s taps even today?
The result: a 75-minute documentary titled “Blood and Watershed,” which debuted this month on Rhode Island PBS. It’s a story that many people who rely on Providence Water every day have never heard.
Villari, a Rhode Island native who is an independent filmmaker and professor at Johnson & Wales University, said the title has a double meaning.
“For many residents in the state of Rhode Island, it’s Providence Water or no water at all,” Villari said in an interview with The Hummel Report shortly after the film’s debut. “The original story was: let me see if there’s any truth to the urban legend that people killed themselves as the result of the condemnation.”
Villari’s curiosity began as a child when his grandfather took him blueberry picking near the reservoir. He also has an uncle who lived across the street from some of the property that was taken in the early 1900s to create what is now a 37-billion-gallon body of sustenance. Providence Water supplies drinking water to two-thirds of Rhode Island residents.
“As a ratepayer, there’s a lot I don’t know about our water that we kind of take for granted,” Villari said. In the documentary he says: “What remains clear is that everything – including the privilege to use the water – comes at a price.”
The project to create the reservoir broke ground in 1917. In the film, Villari recounts that many of the workers were Italian, and Blacks who came up from the South. They were housed in barracks surrounded by barbed wire, apart from the other workers.
“They were labor camps. The pay was abysmal. The people were desperate, unskilled individuals,” Villari said, adding that those brought up from South Carolina were charged for transportation and lodging when they arrived.
People lost villages, livelihoods, and some, their lives
The unskilled labor force, which dug ditches and poured concrete, eventually transitioned into skilled labor employing Teamsters as the project evolved.
Villari profiles Ray Wolf, who has written extensively about Scituate and what he calls the five “lost villages.” Hundreds of landowners had their properties condemned and were paid what the Water Supply Board determined they should be paid – not necessarily the value of the property. Wolf said the initial land grab was 18,000 acres.
Wolf’s mother, Helen Larson, was devastated when, as a child, she had to move to make way for the reservoir, leaving friends she would never see again. “(Wolf) is the first, first-person account I could get. It still hurts that people lost their homes, their community, their livelihood, and some, their lives,” Villari said.
“He is the essence of the film. We’re not related, but we have similar curiosity, we want to make sure the story doesn’t pass by with time, that we’re continuing to honor the sacrifice that took place 100 years ago.”
Villari offers a detailed account of those who were not politically connected and had to give up houses, farms, schools and friends to make way for the project. He includes the village of Rockland, where entire burial grounds had to be relocated out of the watershed.
In the documentary, Villari notes: "Although the workers did not receive any compensation for their moving expenses, the dead were transported to a new resting place free of charge.”
More than 100 burial grounds contained thousands of bodies. Villari had heard that seven people committed suicide; he was able to confirm two. To do it, he had to comb through Rhode Island State Archives and death records in Scituate from 1913 to 1926. “It was important to me to try and humanize it as much as possible if I can’t find their (photo), so that at least I can find their property and their death certificate so I can tell their story.”
One of the two confirmed suicides was Fred Sayles Hill, born in 1865. Hill owned a considerable amount of land in Scituate that included a farmhouse and barns. Villari recounts that just as the reservoir was inching to capacity, and his former farm was taken in the process, Fred Hill passed away on Feb. 10, 1926.
He was laid to rest next to his parents, who had been relocated from the old Rockland cemetery to a new one.
At the bottom of the death certificate, filed two days after Hill’s death, the cause is listed as “suicide by cutting throat.”
Miles of lead pipes carry drinking water from Scituate
Villari said it took nearly six years to finish the film because of delays in trying to secure video access and information from the Providence Water Supply Board – plus interruptions because of the pandemic.
He said his original focus in 2017 was going to be the history of the project a century ago. Bu then he began to run into roadblocks and started taking a closer look at the distribution system that feeds water from Scituate to its customers. It’s a system that includes miles of lead pipes.
“I think it’s important to question things, and be curious and hold public figures accountable,” Villari said. “When you have uncertainty there should be individuals – some have been elected, many of which have been appointed – who should be the experts who can answer those difficult questions.”
In the film, Devra Levy, with the Childhood Lead Action Project in Providence, said Providence Water has known about lead in the water for more than a decade. She noted that the agency had begun replacing lead pipes, but only to the owner’s property line. Providence Water describes them as public-side replacements. Private-side replacements reach from the curb to the owner’s house.
“The pipe that goes to the house, overnight, or while someone is out at work, that water is sitting in the pipe leaching up any lead that might be there,” Levy tells Villari in the film, adding that while the public-side replacement was a good start, it didn’t solve the lead problem.
'It's your plumbing, it's your property'
Ricky Caruolo, general manager of Providence Water, pushed back on the documentary’s narrative that the agency should have been doing complete replacements all the way into houses from the start.
“We’re regulated by the Public Utilities Commission,” Caruolo said in a recent wide-ranging interview with the Hummel Report at his office last week. “We’re not allowed to use ratepayer money for a private-side replacement. The issue that people tend to forget is that from the curb stop to the home is the private side service – it’s your plumbing, it’s your property.”
Caruolo added: “Our message has been consistent to (Childhood Lead Action Project). They don’t like the message: I’m not allowed to use ratepayer money to subsidize private-side replacements, nor am I in favor of it. The real dilemma here is: should 50,000 people (who don’t have lead pipes) subsidize 25,000 people to replace their property?”
Caruolo said when Providence Water fell out of compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency on lead levels more than a decade ago, it was required to start replacing public-side service lines incrementally.
Over the last 15 years, Providence Water says it has spent about $78 million replacing public lead service lines. The agency still has about 24,000 private lead service lines and 9,200 public lead service lines remaining in its distribution system.
The challenge has been financing and getting buy-in from customers. The agency has cobbled together grants and federal money, and built in costs for public-side lead line replacement into its annual budget. Caruolo also said he is expecting some of the bipartisan federal infrastructure funding also to be available over the next five years.
But not everyone is willing to have their pipes replaced. Six years ago the agency set up a 0% interest loan program to help customers with the $4,500 cost of replacing lead pipes on their property. It initially had a three-year payback period, but in 2020 that was extended to 10 years. It means the average customer with a loan will see an extra $35 to $40 in their monthly bill to pay it down.
While the price tag has been a deterrent for some, more than 1,200 customers have taken advantage of the offer. In addition, the agency, using $6.4 million in EPA funding, has offered to replace lead lines on private property to homeowners in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods like Washington Park and Charles Street neighborhoods.
After Flint, North Providence's mayor acts to replace pipes
After high lead levels in the public water supply of Flint, Michigan made national news in 2014, North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi began looking for ways to replace pipes in his town. He secured $200,000 of Community Development Block Grant money to begin private-side pipe replacements.
Lombardi recalls a conversation he had with the official running the block grant program. “You sure you want to do that? I’m a little concerned you could scare people,” Lombardi said the official told him.
Lombardi said he held a series of community meetings, telling those who attended: “You may not have a problem today, but in 14 or 15 years you could have a problem, so take advantage of this free money now.”
Providence Water refuses access, citing Homeland Security regs
He is coordinating with Providence Water to have the utility replace the public side when the town replaces lead lines on the private side. North Providence has spent nearly half a million dollars to switch out the pipes at 102 homes.
Lombardi says the town still has 800 to go. “It’ll be a while, but we’re going to keep seeking the funds to take care of this,” he said. This decision was easy for me – safety, the children. Give me a break.”
Villari said he was frustrated by Providence Water’s refusal to let him go to non-public areas for the documentary. “Give me access so I can record some (video) of the reservoir, from the watershed, and access to the water delivery system. Either your water filtration plant or the surrounding aqueduct, so I can discover what this story can be,” he said. “So I can share how the sacrifice of 100 years ago is now still happening and the water is still coming to 66% of the state’s taps.”
He wanted to visit and film properties that he had photos of from a century ago to see what they look like now. The answer was no.
Villari noted that in 1978, then-Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. wrote to the chief engineer of Providence Water, clearing the way for scuba divers to explore the villages that had been flooded when the reservoir was built. Villari, in his research, found nails – presumably from buildings on the bottom of the reservoir, in some places at a depth of 90 feet.
Caruolo takes responsibility for limiting Villari’s access, saying protocols changed after Sept. 11, 2001, and that the federal Department of Homeland Security has regulations concerning water supplies. “I feel bad that he feels as though we didn’t accommodate him, because I try to accommodate within reason,” Caruolo said. “I have to protect the system.”
Villari said he hopes his film will get others to ask questions as well.
“I was told my entire life we have the best water in the country,” he said. “We’re indoctrinated with this idea that our water supply is so great. I think it’s healthy for ratepayers to be curious about chemical makeup, what’s in our water and how that water is getting from the supply to our tap. Not to mention the historical sacrifice that certainly factors in.”
“Blood and Watershed” is available online at https://watch.ripbs.org/show/blood-and-watershed/
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