Constructed out of necessity, water systems have changed very little since Roman times, except that the Romans used stone aqueducts.
As with all the founding colonies, the first water used in Providence came directly from springs. It was safe, readily available and at first plentiful. As the population grew, however, the water supply in certain areas was becoming depleted. Wells and fountains were dug, but wells near the swampy shores did not adequately serve as drinking water. By 1773, two water supply companies developed.
The first water system in Rhode Island was installed in 1772 as underground wooden pipes, supplying 100 gallons of spring water per minute. The source of spring water for this system came from Captain John Field's Farm at Cowpens Point (presently the Chestnut Street area in Providence). The second system, available to subscribers in October 1772, operated as the Rawson Fountain Society for 110 years. In 1885, the total yearly average of water consumption in Providence and surrounding areas was 1,650,964,062 gallons.
In 1886, pipes were laid from a large well near Hunts River in Kent County to the village by the Greenwich Water Works. This appears to be the earliest pipe within the Kent County Water Authority's (KCWA) system. Both the valves and pipes are cast iron, some of which were made by the Peet Valve Company.
Hydrants became increasingly important to fire districts dating back to the 1860's. The districts individually contracted with the previous water companies, including the Pawtuxet Valley Water Co., to install hydrants for public fire protection.
Before fire hydrants were installed, the method of fighting fires was far less sophisticated. In East Greenwich, the town pump was the only supply available to townspeople for extinguishing a fire. Bucket brigades were formed by willing citizens from 1677-1797. In 1797, the first fire company was formed in East Greenwich, and a large fountain was built. Every person whose property was insured by the Providence Mutual Insurance Company (it was the only insurance company in the state for many years) had to keep a pair of buckets ready for use in case of fire.
Fire districts were required to install hydrants by the legislature. Most of the Valley, which ultimately made up the Kent County Water Authority service area, consisted of towns with enormous mills, usually wooden and stone structures, and town houses built very close together. Without hydrants, fires were extremely difficult to fight in the closely populated mill town areas, and major losses occurred as a result of a lack of available hydrant supply.
Hydrants with cast dates of 1884 remain active in the KCWA system well into the 1990`s and were produced by New England manufacturers, such as Holyoke, Ludlow and Chapman.
As the population grew, the need for a plentiful water supply increased, leading to the construction of the Scituate Reservoir. Legislation was passed in 1915 to condemn land in Scituate and 12,450 acres was taken for the reservoir and its watershed. The large, artificial lake continues as the primary source of today's water supply for the City of Providence, Kent County Water Authority along with a number of other cities and towns.
A water supply board was created by the General Assembly in April 1915 and adopted the construction plan for Scituate Reservoir, which was to be supplied by the north branch of the Pawtuxet River and its tributaries, constituting a watershed of 92 square miles. A year later the system was operating. Today, this reservoir has an estimated storage capacity of 37 billion gallons.
In the 1920's, a locally manufactured wooden pipe, known as wooden staved pipe, sprung up in local lumberyards. It was used until 1988 in parts of the KCWA. Staved wooden water tanks also serviced mill homes.
During the 1950's and 1960's there was an influx of city dwellers moving to the suburbs. As people moved to Kent County, water consumption grew dramatically and the need arose for a county water company.
Created by the General Assembly in January 1946, the KCWA became a water distribution unit four years later. In 1950, under the leadership of KCWA Chairman Col. Patrick H. Quinn, the three privately owned Kent County water suppliers, Pawtuxet Valley Water Co., the Warwick and Coventry Water Cos. and the East Greenwich Water Co., were purchased. The Authority also bought Good Earth, Inc., a real estate holding company that owned land around Carr's Pond in East Greenwich, a reservoir for the three companies.
Each of the companies, incorporated in the 1880's, were subsidiaries of New England Water, Light and Power Associates, a Massachusetts voluntary association founded in 1928. The companies were officially liquidated in 1950 when the KCWA became responsible for water distribution in Kent County. The companies operated as a unit, with a common staff and executive offices in Providence and operating headquarters in West Warwick.
Combined, the three companies supplied three million gallons of water a day to approximately 7,000 customers. Today, the Kent County Water Authority sells an average of 5.2 million gallons of potable water per day to more than 26,700 service connections.
Water sources included surface reservoirs and well fields, and a few storage tanks. The former East Greenwich Water Supply Company drew its water from two main sources. The regular supply came from a dug well, built in 1931. The emergency supply, which served as the primary water supply before the well was constructed, was Hunt's River. The river intake had remained in place, and water would have been drawn from the river in case of an emergency.
Funding for these initial acquisitions was generated by the Authority's 1950 Water Revenue Bonds of $2,050,000, all of which has been retired. The State legislature established the KCWA as an independent authority supported financially by user charges and regulated by the State Public Utilities Commission.
Carr's Pond was an original source for KCWA's water supply. During its first two decades, the Authority drew most of its water from Carr's Pond, but in 1972 the pond was found to be contaminated. The Authority then began to purchase supplemental supplies of water from the Providence Water Supply Board (PWSB). The KCWA has purchased water from the PWSB since 1951.
Between 1950-1970, other pipes came into the market and were used by the fledgling Authority. The century style, transite style pipes were used most exclusively from 1940-1970's. Iron pipe was still available, and plastic became popular during the 1970's and 1980's.
Ultimately, in 1988, ductile iron pipe became the preferred method for the Authority. It is a stronger, more resistant material, lined with a cement mortar material, reducing corrosion. This completes the circle from iron to wood back to iron.
Valves have changed little in design from the middle 1800's to the present. The one major change occurred in the 1980's when valves went from the original double-disk style to the resilient seated style. Valves have always been made of iron, strictly for control of water flow.
The method of construction, of course, has changed from that used by former water companies in Kent County. Initially crews that were hired by either water companies or contractors would dig and lay the pipe by hand. The advent of steam engines provided easier installation of pipe, and the current diesel backhoe style is even more suitable for installation of pipe.
The Kent County Water Authority continues to service the same towns, but water use trends have shifted to primarily suburban community life rather than for large mill manufacturing. Residential and economic development in Kent County continues to grow and the demand for modern water supply are ever necessary to facilitate both economic and residential development. Regulations by the Federal Government continue to foster improvement in the system and development of modern techniques to service our ever changing population. Additional water supplies are critically necessary to support the continuous expansion of our customer base. We believe construction of the Big River Reservoir is an instrumental asset necessary to resolve this concern.