Citizen scientists walk Abington Brook

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Pomfret - posted Tue., Jul. 26, 2011
Paula Coughlin takes a GPS reading. Photos by D. Coffey
Paula Coughlin takes a GPS reading. Photos by D. Coffey

Citizen science coordinator Paula Coughlin donned waders, a long-sleeved sunblock shirt and a hat before setting off into Abington Brook next to the Pomfret Town Hall on Route 44. In her pack were a plastic bag filled with stream assessment sheets, a GPS device, a camera and a water bottle. Coughlin and volunteer Grace Jacobson were trying to locate sources of bacteria that are contaminating parts of the Mashamoquet water shed.
Watershed conservation coordinator Jean Pillo said that one thing was certain: some of the contamination was coming from Abington Brook. “We're looking for obvious problems,” she said. “We don't know what is causing it. We just  know that there is bacteria in the brook. We're looking for clues.”
Pillo expects the stream walks will provide clues to identify the problems. “We can't correct a problem if we don't know what the problem is,” she said.
That problem might be a number of things, and it was Coughlin's job to identify them. Walking the stream enables her to see what is happening with the water. Septic smells, agricultural and highway run-off, and manure piles near the bank are just a few of the things that contribute to high bacteria counts. If Coughlin found any of those things, she would document them, filling out protocol sheets from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She took GPS readings and photographed her findings. All the data is entered into a data base that will help the Thames River Basin Partnership in its mission to protect ground and surface water quality.
Pillo works with the TRBP, but she gets funding from a variety of sources. Federal money is funneled through the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Because the TRBP is equipped to work with many different partners, she can look at the data collected and see how to deal with the problems identified.
“If it's something obvious like illegal dumping, we call the DEEP,” she said. “If we find a pipe coming from someone's house with toilet paper coming out of it, we'd call the health department. It depends on what we find as to how we react to it. But we know we're looking for things that can cause bacteria in the brook.”
Coughlin and Jacobson entered Abington Brook near a Route 44 bridge. They waded upstream, carefully maneuvering their way past thorns of multifloral rose and stinging nettle that grew lush along the banks. Invasive plants such as Asian bittersweet and burning bush grow thick and wild along the stream. A canopy of trees shaded much of brook, but the temperature was in the 90's.
Coughlin recorded where a livestock fence crossed the water, where five conduits were laid side-by-side in the stream, where bank erosion had taken place. The protocol sheets she filled out required much information. Citizen science volunteers are asked questions about stream depth and width, the kinds of trees growing at the spot, how fast the channel moves, and what the water moves over. The information is designed to give a broad picture of what the water is flowing over.
Coughlin spends about three to four hours training stream assessment volunteers with classroom lectures and field work. “You don't want to make it so technical so that people don't want to do it,” she said. Yet volunteers need to know enough to make the data they collect worthwhile. “Scientists can collect significant information,” she said. “Our goal is to educate people. This is a starting point. We want to get them out into the environment and get them connected to the land and water and resources.”
Coughlin sat on the stream bank and recorded data on a bank erosion. Jacobson walked the bank, estimating its length. Together they recorded the GPS location. After several minutes, they moved downstream looking for clues. In three hours they walked about three-quarters of mile, noting their observations. Coughlin would enter the data into a computer program, and Pillo would access it once it was finished.
“Until we find the sources of contamination, we can't fix it,” Pillo said. “Our goal is to fix it. We have to think of everyone, homeowners and all those kids that want to go swimming in Mashamoquet State Park on a day with temperatures in the 90's.”

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