Volunteers Keep an Eye on Health of Blackstone River

By CATHERINE SENGEL/ecoRI News contributor

The Blackstone River flows from Massachusetts to Rhode Island and has a drainage area of 474 square miles. (NOAA)

The Blackstone River flows from Massachusetts to Rhode Island and has a drainage area of 474 square miles. (NOAA)

HOPEDALE, Mass. — The Blackstone River didn’t fail its 2014 test, but the long-abused waterway’s grade did slip.

Members of the Blackstone River Coalition (BRC) met March 21 for the organization’s annual Water Quality Monitoring Summit to hear the results of data collected between April and November 2014 from 75 monitoring sites throughout the river’s watershed.

Peter Coffin, the BRC coordinator, told the gathering that the 2014 analysis resulted in a grade of C+ for the 48-mile river, down from a B- in 2013, with a slow trend toward improvement of overall quality since monitoring first began in 2003.

The river, which the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1990, called “the most polluted river in the country with respect to toxic sediments,” is rated annually by the BRC on four levels, from excellent to poor. A statistical grade-point average (GPA) for the river is determined using data from samplings that measure water clarity and appearance, temperature, dissolved oxygen, nutrients such as nitrates and phosphorus, and averages from previous years’ testing.

Susan Thomas, coordinator for the BRC’s watershed-wide volunteer water quality monitoring program, reported higher levels of phosphorus and nitrates overall, indicating worsening conditions at varying points along the watershed, particularly in Rhode Island.

These annual results bring into question the impact of wet-weather events and other conditions that might impact the river’s health, she said. Taken together, the annual results allow the BRC to prioritize sites and address areas with the biggest concerns.

The event, held at the Hopedale Community House, was combined with an appreciation breakfast for the volunteers who monitor sites.

Beginning the second week of April and twice monthly through October, individuals collect information on water quality conditions throughout the Blackstone River watershed, from its headwaters in Worcester to its mouth in Pawtucket, R.I., and all the tributaries and ponds throughout, providing valuable physical, chemical and aesthetic data.

“It’s highly unusual for volunteer monitors to have that breadth and depth,” Coffin told the group, noting the importance data gains with each year adding to the ability to track trends and flag sensitive areas.

“After five years and certainly after ten years that data gains in importance,” Coffin said. “It’s going to be a major statistical analysis that we’re beginning to perform now.”

Richard Hartley, fisheries biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife and keynote speaker for the event, addressed the status of fish in the watershed and the state’s research and programs currently underway.

He reported a good distribution of both cold- and warm-water species, noting that the division has identified 50 cold-water fisheries in the Blackstone — 24 of those in the past 15 years.

“We’ve come a long way in the last ten years in getting all agencies on the same page for what needs to be done and provide information ... to update lists of waters that need protection,” Hartley said.

The BCR is a partnership of organizations, businesses, agencies, municipalities and individuals working to restore the Blackstone River, protect water quality and wildlife habitat in the watershed, and advocate for sound land use.

In 2003, advocates launched a campaign for a fishable and swimmable Blackstone River by 2015 with the ring of a “Clean by 2015” slogan to fuel the project. As the BRC kicks off the next phase of its campaign for a fishable/swimmable river, it will focus on what that goal means.

Overall, the river, which was heavily contaminated during the Industrial Revolution, is significantly cleaner than at the group’s inception, Coffin noted.

“The river is fishable and swimmable in lot of places. Lots of fish can survive. Edibility of fish a different issue,” he said.

The BRC is looking for additional volunteers throughout the region to monitor additional sites and to train as floaters and substitutes. Monitoring season begins April 11.

“There’s no way we could do this and there’s no way the state could do this without the volunteers who contributed 1,000 hours of sampling for data collected in 2014,” Thomas said.