Friday, June 23, 2017

Rhode Island's citizen scientists

            When Betty Law heard that the water quality in the pond behind her house in Warwick was so poor that it was unhealthy to swim in, she attended a public meeting at City Hall to learn more. That’s when Law, now 94, first met neighbor Gisela Meyn, 73, and they decided to do something about it.
            They teamed up with the Watershed Watch program at the University of Rhode Island to conduct tests of the water in Little Pond every week from May to October. It’s a project they have now undertaken for 21 years in a row, with no plans to stop. They have the distinction of being among the longest-active participants in a program that boasts about 350 volunteers
Gisela Meyn collecting water samples (James Jones)
monitoring water quality in more than 220 water bodies in the state each year. Law is the program’s oldest volunteer by far.
            “It was a shame that we lived on the pond and couldn’t go in the water,” said Law. “I’m not a great swimmer, but I like to cool off in it.”
            The Watershed Watch protocol requires that the pond be monitored at its deepest point, so every week the women row a small boat from the shoreline behind Meyn’s house to the middle of the pond to collect water samples and measure various characteristics of the water.
            “Gis treats me like an old lady,” joked Law. “She helps me into the boat and she rows the boat, but we do the rest together. I still drive, tap dance and sing in the choir at St. Kevin’s, too.”
            When they reached the middle of the pond – both barefoot and wearing flowery blouses and colorful shorts – they went to work. To measure water clarity, Law leaned over the edge of the boat precariously to lower a black-and-white patterned device called a secchi disk into the water, then looked through a tube to determine how far below the surface she could still see the disk. At the same time, Meyn measured the water’s temperature and depth, then submerged a complicated instrument to collect water samples at various levels. Law then conducted another secchi disk test to verify her original results.
            Twenty minutes after they started, the women rowed back to Meyn’s house, with Law serving as navigator while Meyn pulled on the oars.
            Watershed Watch is one of an increasing number of citizen science projects in Rhode Island that engage volunteers and non-scientists in collaborative efforts to collect data for scientific research.  Now in its 29th year, the program provides information that is used by water conservation organizations, policy makers, regulators and state and local officials to make decisions that affect the health of the state’s water bodies....

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