Stonington — With a sterile glass jar in her gloved hand, Sally Cogan leaned over the side of her small open motor boat Friday morning to scoop some water from the mouth of Wequetequock Cove.
“We’ve been doing this for 10 years,” she said, as she capped the jar while her boat bobbed in the gentle swells under cloudy skies. “But this year, a few things are different.”
Cogan, the corresponding secretary and co-chairwoman of the water quality monitoring team of the grass-roots nonprofit group Clean Up Sound and Harbors, or CUSH, collected several more samples that morning, testing some on the spot and storing others in coolers for later examination at a lab.
CUSH began its testing program as part of its efforts to quantify and combat pollution problems plaguing Little Narragansett Bay, the Mystic River and other local embayments. Now, those efforts have joined a larger project looking at bays and harbors, called embayments, across Long Island Sound, from Greenwich to Stonington on the Connecticut side — including sites on the Niantic River — to bays on the north fork of Long Island on the New York side of the estuary. Lab tests of the water samples are being conducted at Mystic Aquarium and at the University of Rhode Island.
“Now we’re more connected all the way down the Sound and into Rhode Island,” said Francis Pijar, recording secretary of CUSH and co-chairman of its volunteer water quality monitoring volunteer project. Pijar leads CUSH’s water testing on the Mystic River and Mystic Harbor.
CUSH’s testing is now part of the Unified Water Study: Long Island Sound Embayment Research project, an initiative begun in June by Save The Sound, a Connecticut and New York nonprofit environmental group. Funded by a $236,000 grant from the Long Island Sound Funders Collaborative, comprising mainly private and community foundations, the project joins 12 local environmental organizations in testing the waters of 24 embayments along the Sound, Jason Krumholz said. He is science coordinator for the project with marine sciences professor Jamie Vaudrey of the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton.
A special program for bays and harbors was needed, he said, because of unique conditions in these areas compared to open-water areas of the Sound, which his organization also monitors.
“The ultimate goal for us was to create a research program that was simple enough for volunteers to collect the data, but rigorous enough for scientists and managers to use,” he said, adding that the project has been under development since 2013. “It took us a while to find that sweet spot.”
The challenge, Krumholz said, was to build on the citizen-scientist efforts of the various groups doing water testing so that the data would be more valuable in determining how best to address pollution problems ranging from excess nutrients feeding algae blooms to low dissolved oxygen, or hypoxia. He and Vaudrey developed protocols and schedules for all the groups to follow, so that standardized data could be provided to scientists and land use managers.
“The goal is that they all do the testing twice a month from May to October, but the minimum is six total samples at least once a month,” he said. “We produced a lot of written material and cheat sheets for the volunteers to use, and we did four sessions in Connecticut and New York with classroom and field training.”
Some of the groups are using automated equipment — called CTDs or Sonde — purchased with grant funds, while others are collecting the samples by hand. Parameters being tested for include water temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll and turbidity. In addition, CUSH is testing its samples for nutrient and bacteria levels as a continuation of its previous program and as a pilot portion of the Unified Water Study project that may be expanded to all sites in future years, Krumholz said. CUSH is particularly concerned about nutrients — mainly from runoff laden with nitrogen from lawn fertilizers and agriculture — because it is fueling an explosion of nuisance algae in local waterways, Cogan said.
Previously, she added, she and other CUSH volunteers followed testing protocols developed by the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program. Now, they follow the Unified Water Study protocols for the testing methods.
In addition to the water sampling, the Unified Water Study also is monitoring seaweed growth in the embayments. Mystic Aquarium staff and interns are collecting that data in local waterways.
“We’re using a sampling technique that gives us a broad picture of whether a system has an algae problem,” Krumholz said.
Mary Ellen Mateleska, director of education and conservation at Mystic Aquarium, demonstrated the technique, which involves collecting samples, photographing them, recording the type and estimating the quantity. Standing on a floating dock at Wequetequock Cove, she tossed in a gardening rake with a rope attached.
“Now, we’re going to slowly bring it up,” she said, as the rake surfaced with clumps of algae wrapped around its tines.
Krumholz said that the data being collected can be used immediately for public educational programs. The data collected this year, he added, will be released in an “embayment report card” that Save the Sound plans to issue in 2018 as a supplement to its annual Long Island Sound report card. But to inform actions to improve the estuary, more time will be needed.
“For scientific and management purposes, we’ll need a few years of data,” he said. “We’re trying to capture an overall picture of the system.”