Water quality program awards given at Pomfret Audubon Center

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Mon., Apr. 8, 2013
Some of the volunteers that were feted at Pomfret Audubon Center on April 5. Photo by D. Coffey.
Some of the volunteers that were feted at Pomfret Audubon Center on April 5. Photo by D. Coffey.

The third annual Water Quality Monitor Program Awards were given out at the Pomfret Audubon Center on April 5. With award names such as “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty,” “Trollinator,” “Trifecta” and “Drowned Rat,” Jean Pillo bestowed accolades on volunteers from throughout the Thames River Watershed for their water monitoring work over the last year.

The Thames River Watershed runs from Massachusetts and Rhode Island down the eastern portion of Connecticut, where it empties into Long Island Sound. Pillo is the Watershed Conservation Coordinator for Eastern Connecticut Conservation District and the Volunteer Water Quality Program Monitor for The Last Green Valley. She trains and oversees a small army of dedicated volunteers who use various methods of monitoring the quality of the water throughout the watershed.

“Think of it as a big bathtub,” Pillo said. “The water from those areas all funnels through the same drain into the sound.” The data collected is sent to state and federal agencies, as well as local officials to ensure that the information is considered in decisions made as as part of best land use practices.

It's a big job. The TRW covers 1,478 square miles. All of The Last Green Valley's 35 towns are in it, and all the rivers and streams that flow through them. Volunteers have waded through miles of streams collecting data on water temperature, pH, and turbidity to establish baseline water quality data. They've recorded algae growth, the presence of fish barriers and storm water outfalls. They've recorded the extent of vegetation cover along stream beds. They've noted occurrences of stream invertebrates such as mayflies and stoneflies whose presence is indicative of the stream's overall health. They’ve tested water samples for nutrients and phosphorus.

It's an important job. The data volunteers gather is included in reports the state sends to Congress regarding water quality standards. Without the volunteers, there would be a dearth of information. Last year, data was collected on 10 sites and eight streams in Connecticut that wouldn't have been included without volunteer assistance.

“The preliminary data of summer temperatures indicated that five of those streams were high quality ones,” said Connecticut DEEP Environmental Analyst Meghan Ruta. And that information is crucial to Connecticut Fisheries staff in determining what streams to stock. “We depend on volunteers,” she said. “We stand by your work.” 

The work is urgent, especially with the recent release of an EPA report that found more than half of the nation's rivers and streams in poor condition to support aquatic life. Twenty-seven percent of those rivers and streams had excessive levels of nitrogen. Forty percent had high levels of phosphorus. This nutrient pollution leads to increased algae growth and decreased oxygen levels in the water, putting  significant pressures on them.

The information is useful to the U.S. Geological Survey climate science centers as well. According to Pillo, volunteers are collecting data that will provide the USGS with baseline information which they can use to determine trends.

Robert Maietta with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Watershed Management spoke to the group about the usefulness of the data they collect. Every two years Congress gets a report describing the water quality of all the waters in the state and the extent to which designated uses are supported. “It's all important,” he said.

TLGV Deputy Executive Director Lois Bruinooge said volunteers deserve the recognition. “With state agencies losing staff and budgets getting cut, volunteers are more important than ever,” she said. Information gathered can target local protection efforts.

“This is important stuff,” said Brooklyn resident Beverly Thornton, who won the Trifecta Award for bacteria monitoring, deploying hobos in Whetstone Brook, (hobos are devices used to measure stream temperature) and taking river trash to her town's hazardous waste collection day. “We're talking about our own backyards.”



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