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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

URI Watershed Watch recruiting volunteers for statewide water monitoring

Program has contributed to improving Rhode Island’s water quality for 35 years 

By Kate LeBlanc

Now in its 35th year, URI’s Watershed Watch program is recruiting
citizen scientist volunteers to help monitor water quality statewide.
(URI photo)
We’re not all professional botanists or ecologists, but we all can be citizen scientists with the help of the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch Program.

Founded in 1987 and now in its 35th year, Watershed Watch is designed to provide information on surface water quality of lakes, ponds, reservoirs, rivers, streams and the marine environment throughout Rhode Island and southern New England. 

To achieve this, Watershed Watch relies strongly on volunteers to monitor these sites and collect data.

Watershed Watch, sponsored by the URI Cooperative Extension, is recruiting new volunteers to serve as site monitors. No experience is required, but volunteers are asked to have one to two hours a week available at a time convenient for them to dedicate towards monitoring. The monitoring season begins in May and ends mid-October.

According to Program Director Elizabeth Herron, the program is open to as many volunteers as there are people interested. She estimates that 350 volunteers will return to monitor again this year, overseeing some 220 sites throughout Rhode Island, southern Connecticut and Massachusetts. Herron is specifically looking to recruit additional volunteers for Gorton Pond and Sand Pond in Warwick as well as other sites across the state.

“Having monitoring information enables our local communities to develop good policies, pass good ordinances, install remediation efforts, and do whatever it takes to be able to protect and restore our watersheds and coastal environment,” Herron said.

New volunteer field training will be offered online via asynchronous training videos, followed by a live zoom session to demonstrate techniques and answer questions. 

Zoom sessions will last approximately two hours and are scheduled for Thursday, April 14, at 5 p.m. and Tuesday, April 19, at 3:30 p.m. Participation in only one live session is required. Additional sessions may be added if needed. 

The videos and zoom will help prepare volunteers for the field, showing them what they will be looking for and demonstrating the use of monitoring equipment. Some of the differences between monitoring sites will also be covered. For instance, some sites require a canoe, kayak or boat to reach, whereas others can be reached by wading into the water.

“Right now we’re challenged with a lot of different things in terms of protecting water quality,” Herron said. “We have increased land use, more people building houses and building commercial property. All that has an impact on water quality; climate change has an impact on water quality.”

Herron suggests forming monitoring teams with family members or friends. If you feel hesitant about successfully monitoring your site every month, Herron suggested bringing a friend to the training and organizing a rotating schedule that works for you.

Once volunteers receive the proper tools and training, they set off to independently monitor their lake, pond, river or stream according to schedules created for each waterbody type or the needs of the local sponsoring organization. However, they must return to URI three to six times a season to drop off their collected samples for analysis in Watershed Watch’s state-certified lab as some tests can’t be done in the field.

In the program’s 35-year history, the data collected has helped make significant water quality improvements in local cities and towns. According to Herron, the data collection and findings from the sites have helped pass wastewater management ordinances and instigated grants that helped to fund stormwater runoff reduction projects.

Herron emphasized that the monitoring program is not free, but it is “cost effective.” The training itself is free of charge, and volunteers do not have to pay to participate. There is an annual site registration fee that is typically paid by a local organization to help support monitoring. Those organizations decide which sites to monitor, and sometimes help coordinate the local volunteers.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer with the URI Watershed Watch program this May to October can sign up and find more information on the URI Watershed Watch site ( under New Volunteer Training.