Volunteer Program Keeps Watch on Local Waters

By ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON, R.I. — Last summer the Obama administration encouraged government agencies to promote citizen science projects to help collect data for certain programs. The announcement signaled the government’s recognition of the value of crowd-sourcing for scientific research. But it isn’t a new idea.

The University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program, now in its 29th year, is one of the longest running citizen science projects in Rhode Island. It has been working with volunteers to collect data on water quality in the state’s lakes, ponds, streams and bays since 1988. The data the volunteers collect is used by watershed conservation organizations, policymakers, regulators, and state and local officials to make decisions that improve and protect the health of local waters.

The program is now seeking new volunteers to help monitor water quality in local waterways from May through October.

“Citizen science is hot now, but we’ve been doing it for three decades,” said Elizabeth Herron, Watershed Watch coordinator. “Because we work with hundreds of volunteers, we can collect more data more often, which in the long run tells us more and more about the environment.”

About 350 Watershed Watch volunteers monitor the water quality in 220 lakes, ponds, streams, bays and other water bodies in the Ocean State. They play a critical role in helping scientists understand the effect that weather and land use have on water quality. Analysis of the 28 years of data collected by volunteers has identified changes in water temperature, nutrients, bacteria, algae and other factors that affect the health of aquatic ecosystems.

Herron said last year’s very cold and snowy winter, coupled with this winter’s very warm weather, will make water quality monitoring this summer especially interesting.

“We had experienced a three-year decline in water quality and an increase in harmful algae blooms in some places from 2012 to 2014,” she said. “And then last year everything went back to where it had been 10 years ago at those sites. It’s going to be really fascinating to see what happens this year. The warm winter means the plants will start to grow earlier, and algae should start growing earlier, too.”

Linda Green, director of Watershed Watch, said the fairly dry conditions will also have significant implications on water quality.

“Some lakes and ponds in Rhode Island do really well in dry years because there is little roadway run-off carrying nutrients and pollutants into the water,” Green said. “But other lakes need that run-off to flush out pollutants that are already in the water. And, of course, no stream benefits from drying up.”

Classroom training for new Watershed Watch volunteers will take place at URI’s Kingston campus April 2 at 9 a.m. It will be repeated April 6 at 6 p.m.

Volunteers are matched to a specific location — usually one that they already have a particular interest in — that they will be in charge of monitoring. Every week or two on a day of their choice, volunteers monitor for water clarity, temperature, algae concentrations and dissolved oxygen. On several designated dates, volunteers collect water samples that are brought to URI to be analyzed for nutrients, acidity and bacteria.

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.

“Our newest partner is the town of Warren, which is looking for volunteers for coastal water quality monitoring, modeled after the successful efforts by Save Bristol Harbor,” Herron said. “North Kingstown is also expanding its monitoring to include Wickford Harbor.”