URI watershed project trains next generation of scientists

Minnesota native compares water quality in local streams

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URI graduate student Britta Anderson collects measurements of water quality at Cork Brook in Scituate. Photo by Amy Dunkle

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 9, 2016 – Cork Brook in Scituate isn’t as far inland as you can get from the fabled coastline that gives the Ocean State its name, but it might as well be.

The stream meanders through protected forest, making it a perfect study site for the North East Water Resources Network, a three-state, $6 million initiative to study how climate variations may play a role in water quality and quantity.

Once a week this summer, University of Rhode Island graduate student Britta Anderson and two undergraduates from Salve Regina University checked the pulse of one of the many tributary streams that collect in the Scituate Reservoir before flowing as one into the Pawtuxet River and then into Narragansett Bay.

For comparison, the student researchers also studied two freshwater sources in Middletown — Bailey’s Brook, which courses through an urban location, and the Maidford River, surrounded by agricultural land. High tech sensors at all three sites measured water quality parameters like temperature, acidity and chemicals present, data that are particularly useful in understanding what happens during extreme storm events.

During each visit to Cork Brook, the students measured various indicators of stream health, including a regular sampling of the aquatic bugs present.

“We counted the pollution intolerant and tolerant species to help us understand water quality,” said Anderson, who grew up in Prior Lake, Minn., and now lives in Coventry, R.I. “For example, stoneflies are pollution intolerant, so their presence tells us the water quality is rather good here. But, on Aquidneck Island, we’ve rarely, if ever, found stoneflies, but generally find the more pollution tolerant species.”

The project is part of the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and funded by a three-year grant awarded to Rhode Island, Delaware and Vermont. URI Professor Arthur Gold serves as the project director for Rhode Island.

The collaboration in multiple disciplines – from hydrology and economics to chemistry and marine robotics – is gathering data, assessing water quality, and gauging how better information affects land use and management decisions. With the states’ varying local climates, precipitation, and population density, the data compiled will provide valuable insight to both scientists and policy makers.

At the same time, the project offers a unique training ground for graduate and undergraduate students at universities in all three states to gain hands-on research experience.

Anderson is pursuing a master’s degree in biological and environmental science with a focus on hydrology. She is planning to wrap up her studies in May 2017.

“The project provides practice on the concepts I’m learning about in school,” she said. “This last year, I took several classes in hydrology. Now, it’s great to get out in the field and learn how the concepts apply and what they mean for Rhode Island.”

Prior to the start of the summer fellowships, the Rhode Island research team hosted about 20 undergraduates from the three states for a three-day orientation at Salve Regina that included an introduction to the project, watershed tours, science communication training, and a fish trawl. At summer’s end, the students gathered at URI to deliver their research findings in rounds of two-minute talks and poster presentations as part of the 2016 North East Water Resources Network’s Undergraduate Research Symposium.