Heavy Rains, Warm Temps Impacted Water Quality

URI Watershed Watch program seeks volunteers to monitor water quality of ponds, streams, and coast

By ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON, R.I. — The high rate of precipitation that Rhode Island experienced in 2018, along with very warm temperatures, had a direct impact on water quality in local ponds, lakes, streams, and bays, according to monitoring results at more than 220 waters bodies.

Much of that effect was negative, said Elizabeth Herron, who directs the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program. “The heavy rains caused an increase in runoff of bacteria into nearby receiving waters — mostly from animal waste, but possibly also from human sources like failing septic systems — and the warm temperatures meant that those bacteria lived longer than they otherwise might.

“The warm water also led to an increase in harmful algal blooms. When we have long, hot, dry periods, the water heats up and gets still, allowing algae to get to the surface to get the sunlight and nutrients they need. We’re creating outstanding conditions for them.”

Not every water body was negatively impacted by the precipitation and temperature, however. Herron said some sites had improved water quality because the heavy rains flushed out contaminants.

“It’s hard to generalize, because some sites do well in wet weather and others do well in dry weather,” Herron said. “That’s why we monitor. The state can only monitor so many places, and it may not be your favorite place or the place that’s going to respond different than most. Having volunteers monitor so many sites gives us a better idea of what’s going on.”

For more than 30 years the Watershed Watch program has worked with local communities to track the many factors that impact 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 impact water bodies.

The program, one of the longest running citizen science projects in Rhode Island, is now seeking additional volunteers to conduct weekly or biweekly monitoring from May to October.

Classroom training for new Watershed Watch volunteers will take place at URI’s Kingston campus March 28 at 6 p.m. and March 30 at 9 a.m. Field training will be conducted in April.

Volunteers are matched to a specific site 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.

Many volunteers work in teams to share their monitoring duties, Herron said.

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.