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Surf ’s (Almost) Up

After nearly a century, park-goers might get to swim at Sabin Point

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If you’ve never been to Sabin Point Park in Riverside, it’s worth the drive. The point juts into the Providence River directly across upper Narragansett Bay from Pawtuxet Neck. It’s a scenic spot with expansive views up and down the bay. On a warm day, you’re likely to find some visitors boating and fishing while others play sports, walk the park’s paths, or visit the new Reflection Garden. But one thing you won’t see is people swimming. Poor water quality has closed the beach since the early 1920s.  

Improving water quality at Sabin Point has been an ongoing effort, according to Patrick Hanner, principal planner with the city’s planning department. Since 2013, city officials and Save the Bay have sought ways to retrofit the park and clean the stormwater runoff it sends into the river. The city had taken some of the steps needed to do this, but multiple, expensive filtration projects still remain.  

The good news is that recently, the cleanup effort received a significant boost: In December, the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office awarded the city $850,000 from the Volkswagen emissions lawsuit settlement. That money will allow the city to design, permit, and construct the remaining stormwater pretreatment projects needed for a swimmable beach.  

Cleaning the park’s stormwater runoff sufficiently is still a long-term project, but city officials are optimistic. Diane M. Feather, AICP, the city’s acting planning director, notes that the forfeiture funds have transformed a wish list goal to one with a solid plan. “Originally this project was intended to benefit a future generation with no definitive timeframe,” she says. “However, now with the VW funds shaving years off our timeline and eliminating the city’s need to apply for more grants, this Sabin Point Park swimmable seach project is something we see as being very probable within our generation – perhaps within 10 years.”  

Maybe it’s time to start training for the inaugural “Swim the Bay” race from Sabin Point to Pawtuxet.