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Thursday, March 6, 2014

URI program seeks volunteers to monitor water in lakes, ponds, streams

88-year old volunteer demonstrates that almost everyone can help Watershed Watch

Watershed Watch coordinator Elizabeth Herron
KINGSTON, R.I. – Sindy Hempstead has been monitoring the water quality of Tucker Pond in South Kingstown as a volunteer with the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program for 20 years. Once a week from May to October, the 88-year old North Kingstown resident loads her kayak in her car, drives to the pond, and paddles to the middle to take measurements.

“Every year they call and wonder if I’m going to do it again, and I never have a good excuse not to. As long as they need it done and I am able, I’ll do it,” she said.

Hempstead is one of about 400 volunteers who monitor the water quality in 210 lakes, ponds, streams, bays and other water bodies in Rhode Island. The volunteers play a critical role in helping scientists understand the effect that weather and land use have on water quality in the state.

“It’s fun to get out on the water every week, but it’s also important to keep an eye on these water bodies to make sure they’re not getting polluted,” Hempstead said. “It’s the only way anyone will know about changes taking place in the ponds while there’s still time to do something about it.”

One of 17 Watershed Watch volunteers who have been monitoring for at least 20 years, Hempstead has had a life-long interest in ponds and aquatic plants. After she retired from careers as a teacher and chemist, she decided to earn a botany degree at URI and stumbled upon the Watershed Watch program when she sought data about local ponds. 

The program is seeking additional volunteers for the upcoming monitoring season, and Hempstead encourages all who are able to participate.

“I realize that I’m getting to be an old lady, and sometimes I think that maybe I won’t be able to drag the kayak out for another year, but I do. And if I can do it, then so can a lot of other people around the state,” she said.

According to Elizabeth Herron, Watershed Watch program coordinator, not all volunteers need a kayak to participate. Ponds, lakes and some saltwater sites are monitored at their deepest point, so access to a boat, canoe or kayak is necessary. But few river and stream sites require a boat.

Volunteers come from all walks of life and are of all ages, occupations, educational backgrounds and interests. Each volunteer is matched to a specific location that they will be in charge of monitoring. 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. Monitoring can also be a family affair for parents and their children, and teens can use it to gain required community service hours.

An introduction to the Watershed Watch program and classroom training for new volunteers will be held Sunday, March 23 at 1 p.m. and repeated on Tuesday, March 26 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 and May. Volunteers must participate in one field session.

“We find that the classroom training helps volunteers better understand exactly what and why they are monitoring and to feel more connected to the program and to the water body they will be monitoring,” Herron said. “The training session doesn’t obligate them to become a volunteer, and it’s a great way to learn more about water quality.”

“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,” added Linda Green, director of the program. “Beginning this year it is also being used by the Rhode Island Health Department to study the connection between increased water temperatures and the health of Rhode Islanders.”

The Watershed Watch 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 Elizabeth Herron at 401-874-4552 or at Visit the program’s web site at Watershed Watch for detailed information about the program and its list of 2014 monitoring locations.