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

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KINGSTON, R.I. – March 06, 2009 – Families concerned that their children spend too much time inside with electronic devices and too little time interacting with nature need only turn to their local pond or stream for an opportunity for healthy, hands-on outdoor activities. The Watershed Watch program at the University of Rhode Island is seeking volunteers to conduct weekly water quality monitoring at water bodies throughout the state.

“We’ve found that it’s a great way for parents to drag their kids away from their computers or television screens and get involved with protecting the environment,” said Elizabeth Herron, Watershed Watch program coordinator. “Conversely, we’ve also seen that many kids who have an interest in the environment have used the program to drag their parents outside, too. Either way, it’s a great family activity, but one that does require a definite time commitment.”

Herron noted that during this time of economic crisis, volunteers are needed more than ever, and the Watershed Watch program is a fun way to spend time with the family at no cost. It is also a great way for retirees to stay active, as retirees have been the backbone of the program for many years, she added.

Watershed Watch is a statewide volunteer monitoring program that focuses on assessing the quality of surface water resources throughout Rhode Island. The program consists of weekly measurements taken by trained volunteer monitors 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.

Launched in 1988 with 25 volunteers monitoring a dozen lakes, the program has grown to 350 volunteers and 220 sites on 100 different water bodies – lakes, rivers, streams and bays — throughout the state.

According to Herron and Watershed Watch Director Linda Green, the overall water quality in Rhode Island is fairly good, for which they 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 Watershed Watch program.

“The water quality information collected by our volunteers is used by conservation organizations, policy makers, regulators and state and local officials to make decisions that improve and protect the health of local waters and those that enjoy and depend upon them,” said Green.

Since 2001, the program has increased the number of coastal sites it has monitored each year, including the salt ponds along the south coast, Greenwich Bay, and Great Salt Pond on Block Island. Program volunteers will monitor water quality in Bristol Harbor for the first time in 2009.

“The concerns are different at salt water sites compared to at fresh water sites,” Herron said. “In fresh water it’s phosphorous that is responsible for algal blooms and low oxygen levels, whereas in salt water the culprit is nitrogen. In fresh water, another increasing concern is the higher levels of chlorides that result from road salt running into the water, especially in bad winters like this year. That can cause great stress to many fresh water organisms, even at levels well below what we can taste.”

An introduction to the Watershed Watch program and classroom training for new Watershed Watch volunteers will be held Saturday, March 28 at 9 a.m. and repeated Thursday, March 31 at 6 p.m. in the Coastal Institute building on Uri’s Kingston campus. Required field training will take place on April 4 and repeated on April 25. 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 many local organizations.

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 such as Greenwich Bay 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.

For more information or to register for the training sessions, contact Herron at 401-874-4552 or at uriww@etal.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 2009 monitoring locations.