URI Watershed Watch seeks volunteers to monitor lakes, ponds, streams

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Program’s 25th anniversary illustrates affect of climate on water quality

KINGSTON, R.I. – February 29, 2012 – Volunteers from the Watershed Watch program at the University of Rhode Island have monitored water quality in local ponds, rivers and streams for 25 years, and it has given them tremendous insight into how climate affects the health of these water bodies.

The floods of 2010, for instance, flushed nitrogen out of smaller rivers and streams and into larger ones, according to program director Linda Green. Nitrogen, the nutrient that causes algae blooms, was at its lowest levels in small rivers in the weeks after the flood and increased through the rest of the year, while large rivers had high nitrogen levels following the flood and levels decreased as the year progressed.

The dry weather in 2007 also affected water bodies differently.

“Water quality declined in water bodies that depend on frequent rains to flush out excess nutrients, while others improved because new nutrients weren’t washed in or because the water table became so low that septic systems couldn’t affect them,” explained Elizabeth Herron, Watershed Watch program coordinator.

The extremely hot summers of 2005 and 2006 caused temperatures in some ponds to reach 86 degrees at times, which is high enough to reduce dissolved oxygen levels and stress organisms living in the water. And the mild fall and winter in those years increased the growing season for algae, particularly blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, which results in algal blooms that reduce oxygen levels when they die. Increasingly severe rainstorms also caused additional run-off from roadways and lawns to enter water bodies, further degrading their water quality and reducing groundwater recharge.

What effects will this year’s mild winter have on water quality? “It’s the first year that most lakes and ponds did not freeze over for more than a day or two, “ noted Green. “This enabled geese to roost on our lakes and their droppings, a rich source of phosphorus and nitrogen, to go into the water. We have already fielded reports of algae blooms, which is unprecedented.” Added Herron, “I think we can expect increased aquatic weeds and native plants.”

The good news is that overall water quality in Rhode Island is fairly good, for which Green and Herron credit the state’s strong environmental regulations and the efforts of local organizations. Rhode Island has one of the nation’s most extensive databases of water quality information, thanks in large part to volunteers in the URI Watershed Watch program.

The program is once again seeking volunteers to monitor water quality in lakes and ponds, rivers and streams, salt ponds and bays throughout the state. Those volunteers play a critical role in helping scientists to understand the effect that weather and land use have on water quality.

“Thanks to our many volunteers we have a much more detailed and complete picture of the effects of severe weather events on water quality than we would otherwise,” said Green.

URI Watershed Watch is a statewide volunteer water quality monitoring program. Trained program volunteers conduct field monitoring every week between May and October. 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.

Launched in 1988 with 25 volunteers monitoring a dozen lakes, the program has grown to nearly 400 volunteers and 270 sites on 100 different water bodies – lakes, rivers, streams, salt ponds and bays — throughout the state and extending along the coast to Mystic, Conn.

An introduction to the Watershed Watch program and classroom training for new Watershed Watch volunteers will be held Saturday, March 31 at 9 a.m. and repeated Thursday, April 5 at 6 p.m. in Weaver Auditorium in the Coastal Institute building on URI’s Kingston campus. Required field training will take place on several Saturdays in April. Volunteers must participate in one field session.

Volunteers come from all walks of life and are of all ages, occupations, educational backgrounds and interests. Each potential volunteer is matched to a specific location that they will be in charge of monitoring. Since ponds, lakes and some salt water sites are monitored at their deepest point, a boat, canoe or kayak is needed, as well as some free time once a week in the middle of the day. River and stream sites, monitored early in the morning at mid-stream, are generally more accessible, with few requiring a boat for access.

The program is sponsored by the 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 Program Coordinator Elizabeth Herron at 401-874-4552 or at emh@uri.edu. Visit the program’s web site at www.uri.edu/ce/wq/ww for detailed information about the program and its list of 2012 monitoring locations.