URI Watershed Watch celebrates 30 years of citizen science and stewardship

For Elise Torello, monitoring Potter Pond in South Kingstown, Rhode Island is a tradition. “I go out every two weeks in my kayak with my clipboard and cooler at 6:15 a.m.,” says Torello, who has been collecting water quality samples at the saltwater pond for the past ten years. “Ospreys hover overhead looking for fish, while herons, egrets, and cormorants fish at the shoreline.” Torello says monitoring the pond motivates her to get out early and see nature at its finest when everything is calm and quiet, and “nature is going about its business.”

Torello is one of more than 1,600 volunteers who have participated in the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch monitoring program over the past 30 years. Launched in 1988, URI Watershed Watch is one of the longest running citizen-science projects in the state, and it’s still going strong.

Sponsored by URI Cooperative Extension in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS), Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RI DEM) and currently more than 45 local organizations, the program has grown significantly from its humble beginnings with just 24 volunteers tracking a dozen lakes in one watershed. Today, the water quality monitoring program boasts over 300 volunteers who monitor 250 sites from the Mystic River all the way up through Rhode Island.

“We’ve had really great support from both the university and CELS, which has contributed nearly $2 million of funding over the past three decades.” says Linda Green, director of URI Watershed Watch. Green has run the water quality monitoring program since it was founded by Dr. Arthur Gold, chair of URI’s Department of Natural Resources Science, in partnership with the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association. “We were able to expand from a very small program to a very comprehensive one,” adds Green.

Local Efforts Achieve National Reputation

Having landed nearly $3 million in federal and state grants over these three decades, including three highly competitive four-year grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), URI Watershed Watch is a nationally acclaimed volunteer monitoring program. Its state-certified laboratory and sophisticated research-grade equipment provide consistent and accurate water quality data comparable to data collected by professionals in the field.

“One of the things that we have learned is that the data becomes more and more useful every year,” says program coordinator, Elizabeth Herron. Since 1992, Herron has overseen URI Watershed Watch’s quality assurance and control procedures, coordinated volunteer monitoring activities, and has run the program’s microbiological laboratory. “These long datasets are important for identifying trends. We’re seeing our data being picked up by national and regional organizations,” she says.

In the face of a changing climate, identifying trends and understanding their impact on local environments is critical to building resilience for coastal, as well as inland communities in Rhode Island.

The program’s 30-year dataset demonstrates that water is not only warming, but it’s staying warmer for longer periods of time. “It’s warming up earlier in the spring and staying warmer later in the fall, which has a lot of very serious impacts on animal and plant life,” explains Herron. “It may be one of the reasons that nuisance aquatic weeds are on the rise.” URI Watershed Watch’s weekly monitoring is able to tease out these environmental changes, thus helping communities make better management decisions for future climate change scenarios.

“The best decisions are the ones based on good information,” Green notes, which is why local and state stakeholders turn to URI Watershed Watch to fill the information gaps. RI DEM, for example, uses the program’s water quality information to identify areas and impaired waters that need more work. At the local level, communities use URI Watershed Watch numbers to conduct risk assessments and implement local ordinances to protect the quality of water resources.

Patience Goes a Long Way

“Our volunteers want to make sure that their water is clean and safe for their kids, their grandchildren and for future generations to enjoy,” says Green, reflecting on the dedication of the hundreds of volunteers who help make the program so successful. “There’s this feeling of responsibility and a sense of stewardship.”

Over the last thirty years, the program has also had a profound effect on the social fabric of communities throughout the state, bringing neighbors closer together and building a tradition of stewardship. URI Watershed Watch is where lifelong friendships and careers begin.

In addition to recruiting hundreds of volunteers, the program has provided real-life work experience for over 80 URI students, many of whom have gone on to pursue environmental careers at local organizations like the Northern Rhode Island Conservation District, as well as state and federal agencies such as RI DEM and U.S. EPA. “We’ve seen students get started in their careers because of their work here, which is really neat to see,” reflects Herron.

Alicia Lehrer, CELS alumna class of ‘93, fondly recalls her time working with URI Watershed Watch as a graduate assistant in the laboratory. “My first big job after graduate school was organizing and developing all the training and materials for the Merrimack River Watershed Council in Lawrence, MA. I used everything I learned at Watershed Watch for that job,” says Lehrer, who also started the bacterial monitoring component of URI Watershed Watch. “Watershed Watch started me off on a very exciting, interesting and satisfying career; I wouldn’t trade what I learned there for anything.” Lehrer has been the executive director of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council since 2008, where she champions water quality in the state’s urban waterways.

“Monitoring is a patient science,” says Green, who hopes the program will continue to flourish long into the future. “A year you don’t monitor is a year that’s gone forever.” The URI Watershed Watch program has no doubt left its mark on the natural environment and local communities of Rhode Island, and serves as a model for citizen science programs across the country.