URI researcher: Heavy precipitation, warm temperatures had negative effect on local water quality in 2018

Watershed Watch program seeks volunteers to monitor ponds, streams, coast

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-2116 |

KINGSTON, R.I. – February 28, 2019 – The high rate of precipitation that Rhode Island experienced in 2018, along with the very warm temperatures, had a direct effect on water quality in local ponds, lakes, streams and bays in the state, 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 run-off 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,” said Herron.

“The warm water also led to an increase in harmful algal blooms,” she added. “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 affected by the precipitation and temperature, however. Herron said that some sites had improved water quality because the heavy rains flushed contaminants out of the water.

“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 affect 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 affect water bodies in good and bad ways.

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 on Thursday, March 21 at 6 p.m. It will be repeated on Saturday, 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, said Herron. Monitoring can also be an enjoyable family activity for parents and their children, and teens can use it to gain required community service hours.

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.

Watershed Watch is sponsored by URI Cooperative Extension in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and about 40 local organizations and communities.

For more information or to register for the training sessions, contact Elizabeth Herron at 401-874-4552 or at eherron@uri.edu. Visit the program’s website at http://web.uri.edu/watershedwatch for detailed information about the program and its list of 2019 monitoring locations.