By CATHERINE SENGEL/ecoRI News contributor
While anglers spread across Handy Pond in Lincoln, R.I., on a recent Saturday for the opening of fishing season, Michael Gravier was downstream just after sunup taking samples to gauge water quality at Mussey Brook.
After making his way to the bottom of the steep embankment behind his home on New River Road, he opened a case equipped with tubes, water bottles, ruler, thermometers, eye droppers and chemicals to test water clarity, temperature, depth and dissolved oxygen content of the swelled stream.
Part of a volunteer brigade working with the Blackstone River Coalition’s water quality monitoring program, Gravier will repeat the exercise on the second Saturday of each month from now until November.
By 8:15 a.m. on April 11, he had numbered test packets, recorded observations on weather for the past 48 hours, appearance of the water, air and water temperature, and delivered results and bottled brook water to a collection center.
In the basement of the Cumberland Hill Fire Station, Amy Parmenter, a hydrogeologist hired by the Blackstone River Coalition (BRC) to collect and compile monitoring data, had set up a make-shift lab for the day.
One by one, volunteer monitors entered, signed in, left bottles and data, and picked up a new field sheet and bottle for the following month.
“The brook was really flowing. There was a little more water and a little more depth than usual,” reported Mike Martineau of Woonsocket.
As volunteers drop off water samples, Parmenter prepared results for more detailed testing. Equipped with turbidity meters, she took an analytical measure of water clarity. Heavy rains, she noted, are more likely to mean cloudier water. Solids suspended in murky water reduce light and absorb heat, decreasing the amount of oxygen dissolved and affecting fish and aquatic life, she said.
At another station, Parmenter filled sample bottles to exact levels. Adjacent meters measured orthophosphate and nitrate content, most often affected by wastewater, septic systems, fertilizer runoff, and industrial and animal waste. High levels can result in algae blooms, increased vegetation and depleted oxygen. Parmenter ended her work with a conductivity meter to record total dissolved solids in the water.
This process is repeated for volunteers reporting at two other collection sites, one at the river’s headwaters in Worcester, Mass., the second at mid-reach between the headwaters and Rhode Island. In all, 75 sites are tested monthly. In Rhode Island, 15 volunteers share duties watching over 17 different streams and tributaries flowing into the Blackstone.
Beginning in 2003, the BRC, a partnership of member organizations that includes Mass Audubon/Broad Meadow Brook, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Blackstone Headwaters Coalition, the Blackstone River Watershed Association, the Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone, the Lake Singletary Watershed Association and the Manchaug Pond Foundation, launched the testing program.
Waterbodies within the watershed are rated annually by the BRC on four levels, from excellent to poor. A statistical grade-point average is determined using data from samplings.
At a March breakfast honoring volunteers, Peter Coffin, the BRC coordinator, reported a 2014 Blackstone River grade of C+ — down from a B- in 2013, with a slow trend toward improvement of overall quality since monitoring first began 12 years ago.
Most of the volunteers who take part in the program have a vested interest in some aspect of the Blackstone River, Parmenter said.
“We had a couple of volunteers last year who do a lot of fishing and were interested for that reason, others like Michael (Gravier), have tributaries in their backyards.”
Parmenter hopes to get more people interested in being trained to do lab work. She has already enlisted her mother, Nancy Mitchell of Glocester, to help with the analysis.
As volunteers delivered the results of their morning field tests and left carrying empty bottles and worksheets, “See you next month” became the standard farewell.