Despite Virus, Volunteers To Monitor Bay Water Quality

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Groundwater protection , Waterways

A volunteer water quality monitor collects a sample last summer. FILE PHOTO


EAST HARWICH — While they’ll be taking steps to keep themselves healthy during the pandemic, a group of dedicated volunteers will be protecting the health of local waterways once again this summer.

This week, a coalition of groups led by the Pleasant Bay Alliance held a training session for volunteers who will be sampling local waterways several times this summer to help paint a picture of water quality trends. And they’re doing it despite concerns about COVID-19, Alliance Coordinator Carole Ridley said.

“It’s been a challenging year on so many levels,” she said, and the leaders of the participating volunteer groups weren’t sure how many people would take part in this year’s water monitoring programs.

“What became apparent is that, overwhelmingly, people wanted to go ahead with this,” she said. While a few longstanding volunteers have opted out for health concerns, “by and large people want to get out there.” Ridley credits volunteers for being resilient and dedicated.

“They’re committed, they enjoy it and they understand the value of it,” she said.

The value of the data they collect can’t be overstated. For more than 20 years, water watchers from the Alliance and related groups like the Friends of Chatham Waterways have been carefully collecting water samples from designated stations around Pleasant Bay, Nantucket Sound, the Stage Harbor complex, Nauset Estuary and Cape Cod Bay. At each station, workers collect information on water clarity, dissolved oxygen levels and other key metrics, creating a very detailed picture of water quality over time.

Samples are taken on five pre-determined dates in July, August and September, and are captured using standardized techniques to allow valid scientific analysis. The information is used by the towns of Chatham, Harwich, Orleans and Brewster when planning nutrient management policies in the watershed. In recent years, towns have been building or expanding sewer systems and developing other methods designed to curb nutrient pollution.

High levels of nitrogen, chiefly from residential septic systems located sometimes miles away from the shore, migrate through the water table before reaching waterways. Those nutrients stimulate the growth of algae, which clouds the water and prevents sunlight from reaching eelgrass and other plants, causing a gradual decrease in the amount of oxygen in the water. Known as eutrophication, the process can lead to the loss of fish and other marine species. Locally, water quality monitoring has been carried out for decades by a patchwork of volunteer groups.

“We, over time, have joined efforts with monitoring programs in other water systems on the Lower Cape, and it’s a really great network that’s been developed,” Ridley said. The related groups share resources and training programs and coordinate logistics. “So it’s a very, very efficient program,” she said.

Each year, volunteers attend a short seminar to be certified or re-certified in the techniques used to collect water samples. This year the training session took place on Zoom. The session was also recorded for future use.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s very workable and feasible,” Ridley said.

Volunteers who aren’t from the same family are required to travel to the launch site in separate vehicles, and no more than three volunteers who are not of the same household can be on the same boat. Volunteers will wear masks and gloves and will maintain proper social distancing, and when dropping off water samples, will leave them in special outdoor receptacles so they don’t have to enter town buildings.

To find out how to become a volunteer water monitor, visit