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Thursday, March 11, 2021

Drought, pandemic affected local water quality in 2020

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

Todd McLeish

Last year’s lengthy drought had an affect on water quality in ponds, lakes and streams throughout Rhode Island – for the better in some places, for the worse in others. 

The increased use of local water bodies by boaters and swimmers as a result of the pandemic also likely had an impact.

According to Elizabeth Herron, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program, the two factors made for a challenging year for the hundreds of volunteer water quality monitors participating in the program.

“The drought actually improved water quality at some sites because pollutants weren’t being washed into the water, while the drought made other sites worse because pollutants weren’t being washed out by big rain events,” said Herron. “We also didn’t see as many harmful algal blooms or the high bacteria levels in the salt ponds we saw the previous year.”

Herron noted that the high use of boats in ponds and lakes – especially those that were shallower than usual due to the drought – stirred up the sediments, and increased human use may have resulted in other impacts on water quality as well.

“Our volunteers reported boats and people in the water at incredible numbers last year,” she said. “People were desperate for something to do during the pandemic, and boating is seen as something you can do with your family and still be safe.”

For more than 30 years, the Watershed Watch program has worked with local communities to track the many factors that affect water quality in local water bodies and determine their current conditions. Thanks to the program, much more is known today about how land use, seasonal weather patterns, climate change and other factors affect local waters in good and bad ways.

The program, one of the longest running citizen science projects in Rhode Island, is now seeking additional volunteers to conduct weekly or biweekly monitoring from May to October. The pandemic has forced a number of logistical changes to the program, however. Instead of classroom training for new Watershed Watch volunteers, training is being provided through videos and online discussions.

Volunteers are matched to a specific site that they will be in responsible for monitoring. Every week or two on a day of their choice, they monitor and test for a number of water quality indicators. On several designated dates, the volunteers also collect water samples that are brought to URI to be analyzed for nutrients, acidity and bacteria.

Among the many water bodies needing volunteer monitors is Meshantucket Pond in Cranston, the newest Watershed Watch site.

Many volunteers work in teams to share their monitoring duties, said Herron. Monitoring can also be an enjoyable family activity for parents and their children, and teens can use it to gain required community service hours.

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 need a boat. Other sites are monitored from the shore or by wading in.

Watershed Watch is sponsored by 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 website at for detailed information about the program and its list of 2020 monitoring locations.