Wanted: Water Watchers

By: Alan Pollock

Water watchers check samples taking during routine testing. FILE PHOTO

Volunteer Water Monitoring Program Turns 20

CHATHAM Aside from supporting their town’s wastewater management efforts and being responsible homeowners and boaters, there’s not much individual citizens can do to clean up local waterways, right?

If that’s what you think, the Pleasant Bay Alliance has an opportunity for you.

The group is recruiting new volunteer water quality monitors who will collect scientific data five times this summer, helping researchers and regulators gain a better understanding of the health of local waterways. In Chatham, it’s the 20th year for the Water Watchers, who collected their first water samples in 1999. The data collection was a component of the 1994 Stage Harbor Management Plan, and was a cooperative effort with the Friends of Stage Harbor Waterways, which later became the Friends of Chatham Waterways.

“We kind of modeled it on the Buzzards Bay water quality program,” Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said. After two years of collecting data in the Stage Harbor complex, the town expanded the monitoring program to include all the town’s waters in cooperation with the fledgling Pleasant Bay Alliance.

Today, volunteers monitor 25 stations in all parts of Pleasant Bay through the Alliance, and individual towns have their own monitors for various salt- and freshwater bodies. In teams of at least two people, volunteers visit specific locations at low tide on predetermined days—two each in July and August and one in September—measuring water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and water clarity, and collect samples to be analyzed for phosphorus, nitrogen and chlorophyll, indicators of nutrient pollution.

It is that pollution, which comes predominantly through the groundwater from residential septic systems, that is the focus of the effort. When nitrogen and phosphorus contaminate a waterway, the nutrients cause a bloom in algae and other phytoplankton, which in turn reduces the amount of sunlight reaching plants on the bottom. The result is a decline in oxygen, which can make it impossible for fish and other marine species to live there. The chain of events is called eutrophication, and it’s affecting water bodies around the Cape.

Fixing the problem is an expensive process that can last many decades, but it relies entirely on having water quality data that meets scientific standards.

“The data and the efforts of the volunteers were critical to the development of our comprehensive wastewater management plan back in the late '90s. It really provided the foundation for that,” Duncanson said. The data didn’t just verify the problem, it continues to provide insight into the effectiveness of efforts like expanding the town’s sewer system, which eliminates pollution from residential septic systems. Region-wide, that effort will cost hundreds of millions of dollars over 20 years or longer. It makes sense to know whether that investment is paying environmental dividends.

“Only through the continued collection of this water quality data will we know we’re being successful,” Duncanson said.

To allow valid comparisons of data across time and location, the samples need to be taken simultaneously at predetermined times. That means it’s too big a job for any individual town to take on using paid staff, Harwich Natural Resources Director Heinz Proft said.

“The towns just can’t do it on their own. We rely on these volunteers,” he said. Water watchers receive all the equipment they need and take part in a training session each year. The Pleasant Bay Alliance is holding a two-hour class for new volunteers on June 18 at 6 p.m. at the Chatham Town Offices Annex, 261 George Ryder Rd. Returning volunteers take a one-hour refresher class. Proft said Harwich holds its own class for volunteers who sample water at ponds and south-side beaches.

Volunteers are generally assigned to a team of four to six people, and ideally at least one member has access to a boat. Because volunteers have busy summer schedules with visitors from off-Cape and special events, they’re not required to attend all five sampling sessions, Duncanson said. Each monitoring trip is also brief.

“Most times, for a group that’s been doing it for awhile and follows the protocol, it’s generally an hour or less,” he said.

“The samplers enjoy not only the training but the sampling,” Proft said. “We’ve had people who’ve done it for 20 years.” There’s a reason most volunteers keep coming back.

“It’s a short time commitment. It’s two hours a month, basically,” he said. “And it’s a way for them to give back.”

It’s also an opportunity for people who love being out on the water to enjoy doing so while accomplishing something worthwhile, Duncanson said.

“A lot of them like doing it because the water bodies tend to be right in their back yards” where they fish, shellfish or go boating. “They have a real vested interest in this.”

Some lifelong residents have seen the changes in the waterways over time.

“A lot of these people have lived in Chatham quite a while, and they’ve seen things go downhill,” he said. “They want to see it come back for their kids and grandkids.”

To find out about volunteering, call the Pleasant Bay Alliance at 508-430-2563.