URI Watershed Watch program seeks volunteers to monitor water quality in state’s water bodies

KINGSTON, R.I. — March 8, 2018 – For more than 30 years the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program has worked with local communities to track the many factors that affect water quality in local lakes, ponds, streams, and coastal waters and to determine their current conditions. Thanks to the program, much more is known today about how land use, seasonal weather patterns, climate change and other factors affect water bodies in good and bad ways, which leads to better decision making.

The program is now seeking additional volunteers to conduct weekly or biweekly monitoring from May to October in the 220 lakes, ponds, streams and bays sponsored by local organizations.

“It is amazing how much conditions even in a state the size of Rhode Island can vary,” said Elizabeth Herron, coordinator of the program. “Weather patterns in different parts of the state affect our waters in different ways, and local land use has a huge impact. A big storm might hit only one part of the state. And even statewide storms have varying impacts.”

“Some water bodies do better under some conditions than others,” added Linda Green, Watershed Watch director. “Some lakes and ponds do really well in dry years because there is little roadway run-off carrying nutrients and pollutants into the water. But others need that run-off to flush out pollutants that are already in the water, or entering through groundwater, perhaps contaminated by septic systems and other sources.”

Herron and Green said that monitoring water quality is an important way to understand these different impacts so that communities can be sure that they are effectively protecting important local resources and spotting problems early.

“We think of monitoring as a kind of insurance. We hope to never see a problem, but if we aren’t monitoring we won’t know that a problem exists until it’s far along – and usually much more difficult and expensive to fix,” Green explained.

For example, since the program began in 1987, harmful algae blooms have become more common at many locations, like Warwick Pond in Warwick, Upper Melville Pond in Portsmouth, and Mashapaug Pond in Providence. The data collected by Watershed Watch volunteers is now being used to conduct risk assessments of those bodies and others at the greatest risk for algae blooms.

The Watershed Watch program is one of the longest running citizen science projects in Rhode Island. Its 350 volunteers play a critical role in collecting data that is used by watershed conservation organizations, policy makers, regulators and state and local officials to make decisions that improve and protect the health of local waters.

Classroom training for new Watershed Watch volunteers will take place at URI’s Kingston campus on Thursday, April 5 at 6 p.m. It will be repeated on Sunday, April 8 at 1 p.m. Field training will be conducted later in April.

Volunteers are matched to a specific location that they will be in charge of monitoring. Every week or two on a day of their choice, they monitor and test for a number of water quality indicators. On several designated dates, the volunteers collect water samples that are brought to URI to be analyzed for nutrients, acidity and bacteria.

According to Herron and Green, many volunteers work in teams to share their monitoring duties. Monitoring can also be an enjoyable family activity for parents and their children, and teens can use it to gain required community service hours.

Ponds, lakes and some saltwater sites are monitored at their deepest point, so access to a boat, canoe or kayak is necessary. But few river and stream sites need a boat. Other sites are monitored from the shore or by wading in.

Watershed Watch is sponsored by URI Cooperative Extension in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and about 40 local organizations and communities.

For more information or to register for the training sessions, contact Elizabeth Herron at 401-874-4552 or at eherron@uri.edu. Visit the program’s website at http://web.uri.edu/watershedwatch for detailed information about the program and its list of 2018 monitoring locations.