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Speaker shares ways to improve Rhode Island's water conditions

By Lance San Souci
On April 27, 2011

  • URI Watershed Watch Program Director Linda Green holds a water sample container at a lecture last night. Carissa Johnson

To many in the University of Rhode Island community, storm drains, pesticides and leaves may have little to no associations with each other.  For those at last night's URI Watershed Watch introductory lecture, however, the three are among the factors destroying Rhode Island waters.

In Coastal Institute's Weaver Auditorium, URI Watershed Watch Director Linda Green discussed the decreasing water quality in Rhode Island, saying that human involvement is required to save its 14 watersheds.  She said as an area of land that drains to the outlet of a water body, watersheds should be monitored to maintain human and environmental needs, wellbeing and safety.

"When you take away wetlands you are taking away the absorptive properties of land," Green said of the continual urbanization of Rhode Island.  "Water quality is not just what's going on in water but also what's going on around it."

She referenced the March 2010 floods, stating that it is common for disasters like that to occur when natural features like wetlands are impeded on by human activity.

This impediment thus allows water to build up, adding with it pollutants that will last for many years to come.  Since water is neither created nor destroyed, but rather goes through a continuous cycle, pollution in a water body can last upwards of 1,000 years.

"We are basically drinking dinosaur tears," URI Research Associate Elizabeth Herron said.

This lengthy period of pollution is due to a process called flushing. In small water bodies, water moves quickly from one end to another.  Conversely, in large bodies of water like Lake Superior, it may take 650 years to recycle polluted waters, Green said.

"All bodies of water are interconnected because of the water cycle," Herron said, adding that the quality of water is a reflection of the activities both in water and the lands that surround or lie upstream.  

So, what happens in farms in the Midwest directly affects the watersheds around the Gulf of Mexico.  Bottom line?  Green said it is best to be careful of where wastes go, citing that disposing of leaves into a lake or pond, or building houses next to a lake, can directly affect the water quality of an area downstream.

Human-generated pollution also causes environmentally dangerous algae blooms.

Herron referenced an experiment in Canada's Lake 227, where scientists divided it into two distinct bodies of water with a manmade structure.

"On one side the scientists added nitrogen and on the other they added phosphorus and nitrogen," she said.  "The side with nitrogen and phosphorus spurred algal growth, and there was a massive algal bloom."

Herron said this occurred because algae and other marine plant life thrive on phosphorus.  This is not necessarily a good thing because both water clarity and quality are decreased when algae levels rise.

Cyanobacteria, for example, are algae that turn the water bright green or blue-green and produce scum or films on the water's surface.  This is the same bacteria that causes seafood poisoning, degrades fisheries, and causes the death of cows or animals that drink out of such waters.

Despite this, Herron notes that the future of Rhode Island and America's watersheds do not look so grim.

"This is why you're here," she said, referring to the volunteers of URI's Watershed Watch.  "Having folks out on a regular basis is really important in knowing what is going on in a water body."

These volunteers, which frequent Rhode Island bodies of water on a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis, are provided with kits that contain tools that allow them to measure water clarity, depth and quality.  Measurements and samples from the water are returned to a lab located in the Coastal Institute, where they are analyzed and compared with previous data.

"The goal [of the Watershed Watch] is to get the water bodies clear and healthy," Green said.  "What we tend to do in our program has more community and focused concerns."

The Watershed Watch is in its 35th year at URI and has more than 350 active participants. Combined, these participants monitor 133 lakes, 93 rivers, 130 tributaries and 114 saltwater bodies in Rhode Island.

Students or community members wishing to join the Watershed Watch, monitoring a body of water of their choice, may contact Green at (401) 874-2905 or lgrean@uri.edu.


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