Snowy Winter to Affect Water Quality

Watershed Watch seeks volunteers to monitor the impact

By ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON, R.I. — The salt and sand used to treat roadways during this snowy winter are likely to have a negative impact on the water quality in local lakes, ponds and streams this year.

“All that salt is going to lead to increased chloride in our waterways, which isn’t good for the critters that live in our streams and lakes,” said Elizabeth Herron, the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program coordinator. “It’s increasingly becoming an issue across the entire northern tier of states, and it’s liable to be very evident this year.”

The runoff of sand from roadways poses a different kind of problem. It creates what Herron calls “sand fans” in water bodies, changing the depth of lakes and providing habitat for invasive plants that prefer shallower water. Sand also can smother the eggs of bottom-dwelling creatures.

“The big storm events that we’ve been seeing in recent years are also generating more runoff and more chances for pollutants to get into lakes, streams and Narragansett Bay,” Herron said.

About 350 Watershed Watch volunteers monitor the water quality in 220 lakes, ponds, streams, bays and other water bodies in Rhode Island. They play a critical role in helping scientists understand the effect that weather and land use have on water quality.

Analysis of the 27 years of data collected by program volunteers has identified changes in water temperature, nutrients, bacteria, algae and other factors that affect the health of aquatic ecosystems.

“Temperature is a particularly important factor,” Watershed Watch director Linda Green said. “Things happen faster at higher temperatures, and certain plants and animals can’t survive when it’s too warm. And certain algae, especially the bad ones, love the high temperatures. So being able to document temperature trends may help us predict problems in the future.”

Volunteers come from all walks of life and are of all ages, occupations, educational backgrounds and interests. Each volunteer is matched to a specific location that they will be in charge of monitoring. Once a week on a day of their choice, volunteers monitor for water clarity and temperature. Every two weeks they also monitor algae concentrations and dissolved oxygen.

On several designated dates, volunteers collect water samples that are analyzed at URI for nutrients, acidity and bacteria. Many volunteers work in teams to share their monitoring duties.

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 require a boat.

“The water quality information collected by our volunteers is used by conservation organizations, policymakers, regulators, and state and local officials to make decisions that improve and protect the health of local waters,” Green said. “It is also used by the Rhode Island Health Department to study the connection between increased water temperatures and the health of Rhode Islanders.”