KINGSTON, R.I. — November 18, 2002 — West Warwick resident Tara Watson spent most of last summer around Charlestown’s Green Hill Pond, but she wasn’t swimming or sunbathing. The University of Rhode Island senior, an environmental science major, was testing water samples from the pond to research how nitrates in runoff and groundwater affect the pond’s water quality.
Working with URI scientist Barbara Nowicki and Professor Art Gold, Watson observed that the water quality of Green Hill Pond has been declining for quite some time. Due to the geology of the area, excess nitrates coming from failing septic tanks are traveling in the groundwater, over the land surface and into the pond. These nitrates combine with various organic and inorganic compounds and cause the water quality to deteriorate.
“The geology makes it difficult for the water to flow through the ground and therefore, it takes the easiest path it can, which is above the surface,” said Watson. “In the riparian buffer zones, which are strips of land adjacent to streams, the groundwater containing the nitrates travel in the ground where denitrification occurs. This causes the nitrates to turn into nitrogen gas, which is not harmful because it makes up 78% of our atmosphere.”
But since denitrification does not occur above ground, the nitrates make their way to the pond and impact the water quality.
Watson’s Green Hill Pond project is one of several experiences that prove her determination to make a career of environmental science. During the summers of 2000 and 2001, she worked for the R.I. Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture as a nursery and organic farm inspector. Her responsibilities included checking the plants in the state’s wholesale and retail nurseries for insect and disease problems and verifying that the organic farms met organic standards.
She also works for URI Watershed Watch, a volunteer water quality monitoring program . Volunteers collect water samples and other data from over 100 sites in Rhode Island. Watson is responsible for analyzing the collected samples by determining chlorophyll levels, total suspended solids, pH, alkalinity, nitrates, ammonium, chlorides and phosphorus.
Watson has dreamed of becoming a scientist since kindergarten when she first learned about dinosaurs. She chose to study environmental science and decided to focus on hydrology after taking a class with Gold and working for Watershed Watch.
“I had always wanted to be a scientist and in high school I decided environmental science was the way I wanted to go,” said Watson.
Funding for her Green Hill Pond research was provided by Rhode Island Sea Grant through the URI Coastal Fellows, a program designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its seventh year, the Coastal Fellows Program teams students with faculty research staff and graduate students to help them gain skills that will ensure their future success.