Buzzards Bay’s New Frontier in Water Quality Monitoring

In the tranquil waters of Buzzards Bay, a significant transformation is underway. For decades, a devoted group of volunteers has been meticulously collecting data to protect this vital ecosystem. Their efforts have been the cornerstone of environmental monitoring in the region. Now, a new technological wave is poised to enhance their mission, offering increased accuracy and efficiency in water quality monitoring.

Lisa Kingston, a 62-year-old critical care nurse, exemplifies the spirit of volunteerism driving this endeavor. Every five days, she makes her way to the Onset pier, equipped with bottles and scientific instruments. “This is our oxygen bottle and this is our salinity bottle. We pull this — bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop — and that fills up,” she describes, her enthusiasm undiminished by the routine nature of the task.

Kingston is joined by Susan Scott, a 77-year-old retired arts administrator, in a collaborative effort to gather data on oxygen levels, water temperature, and salinity. Their work contributes to one of the longest-running water quality programs in the region, providing essential insights into the impacts of septic systems and lawn fertilizers on Buzzards Bay. For over three decades, these volunteers have been the unsung heroes of environmental monitoring, their data crucial in identifying and addressing threats like toxic algae blooms and dangerously low oxygen levels.

However, the landscape of environmental monitoring is set to change with the introduction of advanced technology. The Buzzards Bay Coalition, in collaboration with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, is spearheading a new approach. Instead of depending solely on manual data collection, they are deploying data loggers — small, cylindrical devices equipped with sophisticated sensors. Senior scientist Chris Neill and researcher Kristin Huizenga are at the forefront of this innovative project.

“We’ll pull up a logger and show you what it does,” Neill states, as Huizenga retrieves an algae-covered milk crate filled with scientific instruments. “They’re basically little cylinders,” she elaborates, indicating the data loggers. “There’s one that has a copper cap on top — that’s the dissolved oxygen sensor. And then there’s another one that’s all black, and that is our conductivity and temperature sensor.”

These data loggers mark a significant advancement in environmental monitoring. Unlike traditional methods that collect data every five days, these devices record information every ten minutes. This continuous monitoring offers a more detailed and accurate depiction of water quality, capturing critical events that might otherwise go unnoticed. Preliminary findings have already revealed that dangerously low oxygen events have been missed up to 40% of the time using manual methods.

The implications of this technological innovation are substantial. With more precise data, scientists and policymakers can make better-informed decisions to protect Buzzards Bay. For instance, they could introduce regulations to limit developments reliant on septic systems or encourage homeowners to adopt nitrogen-reducing septic systems.

Despite the shift towards technology, the future role of volunteers remains a topic of contemplation. Susan Scott reflects on this transition, stating, “I’d like to be helpful wherever I can be. So if they say, ‘There’s something else you could do in lieu of that,’ that’d be great. Or if they said, ‘We’ve got the high-tech sensors and so forth, so none of this is necessary,’ I’d find somewhere else to go and help in some way.”

Even as technology becomes more integral, the human element remains indispensable. Volunteers like Kingston and Scott will continue to play a pivotal role in collecting certain types of data and supporting the coalition’s mission. Their dedication and passion are irreplaceable, and their efforts will complement the new technology.

As Buzzards Bay embraces this new era of water quality monitoring, it is essential to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of its volunteers. Their work has laid the groundwork for the technological advancements we witness today. By merging the power of technology with the dedication of the community, we can ensure the health and vitality of Buzzards Bay for future generations.

This story, produced by the New England News Collaborative, was originally published by CAI.

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