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

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Drought in 2007 may impact Rhode Island water quality

KINGSTON, R.I. – March 7, 2008 – The warm, dry weather in 2007 may have a big impact on water quality in Rhode Island’s lakes, streams and bays in 2008, according to staff with the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch Program. Whether the impact is good or bad will be determined in the coming months.

“What we have found in the past is that droughts have a very different impact on different rivers and ponds,” explained Elizabeth Herron, Watershed Watch program coordinator. “Water quality declines in water bodies that depend on frequent rains to flush out excess nutrients, while others improve because new nutrients aren’t washed in or because the water table becomes so low that septic systems can’t affect them.”

Herron said that several streams went dry in 2007 for the first time in at least 15 years, and many streams that typically run dry each year were dry much longer than usual. Other lakes and ponds, like Worden’s Pond in South Kingstown, were at their lowest levels in many years, which concentrates nutrients and other pollutants, as well as the fish, in the remaining water. What will happen this season now that the pond is filling back up is an open question.

Regardless of the affects of last year’s drought, Herron and Watershed Watch Director Linda Green note that 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.

To support those efforts, 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. To ensure that this vital stream of information continues to flow, Herron and Green are seeking additional volunteers to monitor lakes, ponds and streams in 2008. 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 throughout the state.

“The water quality information collected by our volunteers is used by watershed 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 Herron.

An introduction to the Watershed Watch program and classroom training for new Watershed Watch volunteers will be held Thursday, April 3 at 6 p.m. and repeated Saturday, April 5 at 9 a.m. in the Coastal Institute building on URI’s Kingston campus. Required field training will take place on April 12 and repeated on April 26. 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. “Ideally we try to find more than one volunteer per site so they can share monitoring duties,” noted Green. “We’re also seeing a growing number of students who become monitors to amass community service hours, as well as families looking for interesting outdoor activities in response to the calls for ‘No Child Left Inside.’” 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.

The monitoring season begins in May and ends in mid-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.

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 2008 monitoring locations.