Monday, June 27, 2011

Dams, Culverts and Stream Crossings, Oh My!

River Herring (a.k.a Alewife)
Alosa pseudoharengus
their life in the ocean and
travel up rivers to breed.    

Imagine being a river herring. After spending a few years growing up in the Atlantic Ocean, it is time to return to the river you were born in. Your senses bring you back to the mouth of the Pawtuxet River where you swam out into the Narragansett Bay, tasting saltwater for the first time, just a few short years ago. You are ready to return to your hatching grounds with your school so you can repeat the process like so many ancestors before you.
The portion of Pawtuxet Falls Dam you see
here is slated to be removed this summer. The
removal will restore the connectivity of the river
to the Bay, and minimally decrease flooding in the area.

But to your dismay, a huge waterfall pours down in front of you (remember, you are a fish, less than a foot long). You cannot jump over the dam, and you cannot swim around it. Just then a large blue bucket scoops you out of the river. You sit in the bucket, afraid of what lies ahead. Then, without notice, you are dumped back into the river! But now you are upstream of the dam. You have just a short way to go to get back to your spawning ground. But you are not in the clear yet. Just up ahead you sense your way. You must pass through a dark and dingy tunnel, under a large strip of concrete with huge hunks of metal barreling overhead. The culvert you are passing through is a stream crossing, where a road passes over the stream. It has been a wet spring so there is just enough flow for you to pass safely. Had it been a dry spring, this culvert would be full of sticky mud and swimming through it would be impossible.

As you can see, this culvert can pass fish.
(Photos courtesy of NRCS)
Despite the odds, you have made it to your spawning ground! Unfortunately, only a few of your kind made it this far. Your school has decreased in numbers, but you make the best of it, and hope the weather and predators will be kind to your young.
No fish could jump high enough to make it into this culvert!
Your job is done. You follow the flow of the river back out to Narragansett Bay where you meet up with the rest of your school and return to life at sea.

While dams once powered the Industrial Revolution, and culverts allow us to pass safely over streambeds, these man-made obstacles can prevent wildlife from accessing their native habitats. In Rhode Island there are more than 671 dams. While some dams hold back water for us to drink, or maintain the level of a lake or pond, others serve no purpose. In fact, 180 dams in Rhode Island are classified as hazardous to life or the environment in the event of failure. The owner of the dam is responsible for maintaining their dam, however, many of the historical dams in Rhode Island have no identified owner because the mills they once powered are long gone. Despite the difficulties of ownership and strained fiscal situations, the watershed organizations and associations continue to work toward restoring the natural flow and environmental connectivity of the rivers. In some cases this means building a fish ladder, or installing a bypass channel that will allow fish and other animals to move upstream without having to leave the river. But when possible, the dam is just removed. By removing a dam all together, we not only re-establish the connection between the river and the Bay, but we eliminate maintenance cost.
If the culvert in the red square is repaired it would
open more than 17 miles of habitat in the
Pawcatuck River watershed to fish and wildlife.

The culverts that carry the streams under our roads were not always designed with fish and wildlife in mind. There are more than 2,780 miles of river within the Narragansett Bay Watershed. This does not include the streams or brooks that may flow through your backyard or neighborhood. Nonetheless, these streams and brooks play a significant role in feeding the rivers, connecting habitats and providing food and shelter to our fish and wildlife. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has identified 4,353 stream crossings in Rhode Island. They have inventoried more than 950 stream crossings in 12 watersheds in Rhode Island so far.  The inventory identifies the characteristics of the crossings and assesses the quality of the crossing based on standards developed by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst Extension program in the College of Natural Sciences. Within the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed alone, more than 150 culverts are classified as severe barriers, meaning they do not support the needs of fish and wildlife.

As part of this project, NRCS is working with landowners and other organizations to identify potential restoration projects. Landowners with culverts on their property are encouraged to apply for grants under the Wildlife Habitat and Incentives Program to fund the restoration of their ineffective culverts. To learn more about this project visit the Rivers and Streams Continuity Project at UMass Extension.
Lesley Lambert

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Nutrient Budget For The Bay

When we think about budgets we usually think in terms of dollars and cents. Do I have enough money to pay the bills, go grocery shopping and go out to the movies? But we can’t calculate the health of an individual or an ecosystem using dollars.  One way to think about the health of an ecosystem though is in terms of supply and demand for nutrients. How much nutrients or food does your dog need to eat to stay healthy? And how much is too much?
Everything needs nutrients to stay alive. Animals must eat to survive, and so do plants, algae, fungus and bacteria. Animals soak up necessary nutrients as they digest the fruits, vegetables and meat we eat. Plants and other sedentary (non-moving) life forms take in nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from their environment—water, earth and air.  When an animal takes in too much nutrients, the excess is expelled so it can be recycled in the environment and reused by other organisms.
Instead of using dollars to calculate a nutrient budget, we use increments of phosphorous and nitrogen compounds. We can calculate how much nutrients (or food) is needed for an individual to survive by evaluating how much we take in and how much is lost to the environment, and examining the health of that individual.
We can also come up with a nutrient budget for an ecosystem by evaluating the point and non-point sources of nutrients entering the system, and measuring how it is being used and where the excess is going.
Consider the Narragansett Bay ecosystem for a moment. The rivers that feed the Bay also bring all that washes into them. This includes all the stormwater that is not soaked up by the trees, grass and plants, all the water from washing our cars and watering our lawns, and all the discharge from wastewater treatment plants. When it rains, the trash, sediment, heavy metals and nutrients that collect on roadways, sidewalks and lawns are washed into storm drains that flow into nearby rivers, wastewater treatment plants or just directly into the Bay. In Rhode Island, only a few treatment plants take stormwater, so much of it is not treated at all before it reaches the rivers or Bay. The Bay essentially becomes the dumping ground for all this pollution. So how much nutrients and pollution is too much for the Bay to handle? And how do we know?
Nayatt Point in Barrington, R.I. is already loaded with seaweed.
Conimicut Point has already raked the beach to remove the
seaweed, and the summer has just begun.
In a healthy system, everything lives in balance with each other. Fish kills and shellfish die offs are one type of clue that nutrient levels may be too high. The big stinking mats of seaweed that wash onto our beaches are also evidence of too much nutrients. To figure out just how much is too much, we must first calculate how much is going in.
Graduate student, Jason Krumholz, is calculating the nutrient budget for the Narragansett Bay.  He is testing whether recent reductions to the amount of nutrients going into the Bay –through wastewater treatment plant upgrades and point source restoration (Read our blog on wastewater treatment plant upgrades)- are enough to change the amount of phytoplankton growing in the Bay, which might decrease the amount of organic material being decomposed at the bottom of the Bay, allowing for higher levels of dissolved oxygen throughout the Bay, making the Bay a healthier place for creatures to live. 
Jason Krumholz makes tiny adjustments
on the nutrient analyzer.
Since 2006 Jason has been collecting seasonal monthly water samples at 13 stations around the Bay and analyzing them for concentrations of nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, phosphate, silica and total nitrogen. He also works with other researchers and state agencies to analyze data from the wastewater treatment plants, river loading data, and a number of fixed monitoring stations throughout the bay.  From this data, he can calculate the total amount of nutrients coming into the Bay. The next step is to figure out where all of those nutrients are going. Some of it washes out to the ocean with the tides, some sinks into the sediment to be used later, and some is released back into the atmosphere, but most of it gets used up by the organisms living in the Bay.

Jason Krumholz and his intern Rossi Ennis
working in their lab at the URI Bay Campus in Narragansett.
Jason is already seeing decreases in dissolved inorganic nitrogen, so one might expect to also see decreases in total nitrogen, but this does not seem to be the case. “It is a bit puzzling” Says Jason. “The Bay is doing something else. We are still seeing high levels of phytoplankton” (microscopic algae) which leaves the same possibility for low levels of dissolved oxygen and potential for fish kills. But we can’t expect to see changes over night.  In many similar ecosystems, response to reduction in nutrient loading has taken several years to manifest.  As the Bay adjusts to the lower levels of nutrients coming in, the species of phytoplankton may shift to ones that can live well with lower levels.  But only time will tell.
We can all help make the Bay cleaner though. Jason suggests using diligence and being a mindful consumer. Be conscientious about the fertilizers you use, purchase detergents without phosphates, and pick up after your pet!

Friday, June 17, 2011

BioBlitz 2011

Students from Community Preparatory
School look for wildflowers.
Joslin Farm in Scituate, R.I. hosted the 2011 RINHS BioBlitz, an event in which scientists, artists, and avid outdoor enthusiasts survey the area in an attempt to create a list of existing species within the boundaries.  A 24-hour event, the BioBlitz began at 3pm on June 10 and ended on Saturday, June 11.  Participants were given specific groups of animals or plants to identify such as birds, bats, and butterflies.   The Rhode Island Natural History Survey hosted the event that drew a crowd ranging from third graders to senior citizens.  It served as an example of how wildlife can interest anyone at any age and from any walk of life.  
Boys from Central Falls School look at
mushrooms under microscopes.
Amongst those participating in the taxonomic survey, were a group of students from Central Falls and a group of sixth grade girls from Community Preparatory School in Providence.  The girls and boys were excited as they began identifying species and anxiously awaited their sleepover in tents.  Wildflowers were a popular draw amongst the Community Prep students.  The younger students use simplified taxonomy books to make their identifications.

The ZooCrew were drawing what
they saw under the microscopes.
Tents peppered the area around
Science Central.
Susannah Brooks, director of ZooCrew,
and ZooCrew volunteer, Carina Barceline,
sign in for the night.
Members of the Roger Williams Park Zoo’s ZooCrew also showed up to provided assistance in the identification. The ZooCrew is comprised of over 60 youth members who commit 50+ hours of their time every summer to volunteer for environmental causes.  
Kai and Lori-Anne sign-in eager to start
finding crickets and other bugs.
For Kai Lima, attending with his mother Lori-Anne, it was the prospect of finding crickets that he found exciting.  Frances Toppings, a member of the RINHS, looked forward to not only identifying species, but also sketching them.  Carl Sawyer, an expert plant identifier, enjoyed his job and described it by saying, “the more I do this, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”  He kept busy checking off identified species on the master list, which reached a total of 914 species.   This year the ants/bees and wasps categories totaled a record of 12 and 24 species respectively.  More than 83 types of beetles were identified compared to a previous record of 69.  

Insect identification occurred under
the Science Central tent.
As we wandered though the various tents, we came upon one spider specialist identifying a Wolf Spider with an egg sack that he explained held up to 200 eggs.  As he examined the spider another spider crawled up his leg.  Interestingly, most spiders must be dead in order to be identified because one must be able to identify mouth structures and other body parts and that is often impossible when a spider is crawling around.  

190 outdoor enthusiasts registered to participate in the event with approximately 150 people on-site observing or recording at any given time.  About 40 of the participants were students between 3rd and 12th grade.  Providence Water hosted and Roger Williams Park Zoo sponsored the event.  Bioblitz has been an annual event in different locales since 2000.

If you are interested in learning more about BioBlitz, check out the following articles.
In 24 cold, wet hours, R.I. BioBlitz counts 906 species on Scituate watershed land / Video, Providence Journal

Also be sure to visit the RI Natural History Survey Facebook page!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why Are Wastewater Treatment Plants So Important?

Wastewater treatment plants do just as they say. They treat the water that goes down our drains before releasing it back into the environment. Wastewater treatment plants have evolved considerably over time. Their first, and most important purpose is to clear the water we use in our homes of solid materials. This process of screening and settlement is known as primary treatment. Although this removes the largest debris items, the wastewater is still full of organic material, which doesn’t smell great and, if dumped directly into our water bodies, can contaminate them and consume available oxygen as it decomposes.  This is why virtually all treatment plants in the U.S. use a process of aeration to encourage the growth of beneficial microorganism which break down the biological material in the waste, in a process called secondary treatment.  In many cases the water is then discharged, often after sterilization with Ultra Violet light which kills potentially disease causing bacteria and viruses.  This was the case here in Rhode Island until about 2005.   However as city populations grow, more and more nutrients are going into the wastewater treatment facilities and being discharged into our waterways. These excess nutrients act like fertilizer to the plants and algae living in the water. Unfortunately, too much fertilizer in the Bay is a bad thing. Phytoplankton (tiny microscopic plants) begin to bloom uncontrollably, blocking out sunlight needed by other plants lower in the water column. Once the algae reaches maximum capacity it begins to die off in mass numbers. The dead cells sink to the bottom where bacteria decompose the cells, using up oxygen in the process. As the bacteria pull oxygen out of the water, the fish, shellfish and other organism in the area begin to suffocate. Those that cannot swim away eventually die, providing more food for the oxygen-consuming bacteria.
However, recent advancements in technology and awareness have brought about new technologies which can treat wastewater to remove these nutrients is done in the third phase, known as tertiary treatment. Click here to download an article about wastewater treatment in Rhode Island, and learn “what happens after you flush.”
Countless fish and shellfish
died in Greenwich Bay in 2003
when dissolved oxygen reached
critically low levels for an
extended period of time.
Following the Greenwich Bay fish kill in 2003, Rhode Island passed a law requiring a 50 percent reduction in nitrogen discharges coming out of wastewater treatment plants in the Upper Bay. To date, nine wastewater treatment facilities in the Narragansett Bay Watershed have completed their upgrades, with three more following closely behind. However, the largest treatment facility in Rhode Island, Fields Point, is still under construction.
As these upgrades come on line, we can expect to see conditions clear up in Narragansett Bay. But it won’t happen over night. The Bay, and the creatures living in it will have to adjust to the cleaner waters. Scientists throughout the region are studying various parameters that will likely be affected and improved over time so we can have a baseline understanding of the current conditions and assess the improvements over time.
Come back soon to read about the Nutrient Budget being developed for Narragansett Bay!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pawtuxet Falls Dam Removal Project Update

To learn more about the Pawtuxet River
Watershed, click here.
The Pawtuxet River is the second largest source of fresh water to the Narragansett Bay. The Pawtuxet River watershed is the largest watershed in the state. It comprises the Scituate Reservoir and its tributaries, the North Branch of the Pawtuxet, the Pocasset River, the Big River and its tributaries, the Flat River Reservoir and its tributaries -- the South Branch of the Pawtuxet, and the main stem of the Pawtuxet. In total, the watershed contains 64 ponds, 93 brooks, 7 tributary rivers, and 18 dams.
The first dam on the river, Pawtuxet Falls, is located at the mouth of Pawtuxet Cove. The concrete dam you see today was constructed in 1924 by the Providence Water Supply Board. The concrete structure replaced the previous wooden structure and was built at the same time Scituate Reservoir was being constructed in the upper watershed. The Scituate Reservoir currently supplies drinking water to nearly two-thirds of the state's population.
With the second largest volume of water in Rhode Island and a substantial drop in elevation from its headwaters to Narragansett Bay, the Pawtuxet River watershed became a center of textile manufacturing plants. Numerous impoundments were created along the river and its tributaries, and along the banks were a series of mills and mill villages, many of which now have historical significance. In the late 19th century, this development was so intensive that an urban area emerged in the eastern Coventry-West Warwick area. Factories and villages both discharged their effluent and waste in the river, degrading water quality in the lower portions of the watershed.
Click here to download a flyer
about the project and meeting
With poor water quality and dams peppering the river, migrating fish such as river herring, American shad and Atlantic salmon could not reach their fresh water spawning grounds. But there is a light at the end of the story! The Pawtuxet River Authority and its partners are working to remove portions of the concrete dam at Pawtuxet Falls, which will open seven and a half miles of river to migrating fish.
On June 21st at 7pm, the Pawtuxet River Authority will host a public meeting at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet to update stakeholders on the progress of the dam removal project. Although construction has not yet begun, permits and contracting are underway. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend the public meeting. 

If you would like to be added to the stakeholder mailing list so you can receive information about future meetings and updates on construction progress contact Lesley Lambert at

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Algae vs. Plants

Diagram of algae
Plants and algae are both photosynthetic. Both are also considered eukaryotes, consisting of cells with specialized components. They both also have the same life cycle called alternation of generations. However, algae are not plants. So, what are they? They are merely members of the Kingdom Protista. Plants compose their own kingdom, Kingdom Plantae. While plants and algae may sometimes appear to be quite similar visually, they in fact have a number of differences between them. In terms of where they live, how they survive and reproduce, and what composes them, plants and algae are vastly different.
Did you know that seaweed is not a plant? First of all, algae may be unicellular, colonial, or multi-cellular. Plants, on the other hand, are only multi-cellular. Holdfasts, stapes and blades compose multi-cellular algae. In comparison, plants have roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds and cones. The roots of plants not only hold them in place, they nourish them. Plants possess vascular systems, which allow for the uptake and transport of water and nutrients. In contrast, each cell in algae must obtain its own nutrients from water for survival.
Diagram of plant vascular system

Clearly, plants cannot move, as they are rooted to the ground. On some algae, holdfasts, which are comparable to the roots of plants, hold them in place. Some algae drift with the water currents. Some algae are actually actively mobile. Dinoflagellates, for instance, whip themselves through the water with a tail-like structures called flagella. Other algae may move by pushing their bodies forward in a crawling motion.
Typically algae are found in water; although, they may be found on land or snow and, strangely enough, even growing in rocks or marine animals or on the fur of some rainforest animals such as sloth. Plants are generally found on land; however, they can also live in water, such as eelgrass in marine systems and water lilies in fresh water.
Reproduction could not be more different for plants and algae. Plants have complex, multi-cellular reproductive systems and some even require the assistance of wind, birds, or bugs for pollination. Algae, comparatively, can reproduce through tiny spores or even by replication or the growth of broken pieces.
Eelgrass is a submerged aquatic vegetation (plant)
Despite all of their differences, algae and plants can often appear deceptively similar. So, next time you’re on the beach and you come across what appears to be a plant, take a second glance because it may in fact be algae.

~Elizabeth Gooding

Simply Science

This common stonefly has a very
low tolerance for pollution, so finding
one is an indication of good water quality.
Most folks don't know what diatoms are, or the role they play in climate change. The average person does not know that samples from a sediment core can tell us how many times throughout history the Bay had too little oxygen to support fish, or that you can measure the health of a wetland by the presence of certain bugs.
Healthy vernal pools can be identified by the presence of
wood frogs
(Rana sylvatica) and spotted salamanders.
This is an egg mass of wood frogs found in a vernal pool
in the Arcadia Management Area in Exeter RI.

This blog is intended to explain how any why scientists measure the things they do. We will be meeting with researchers, watershed organizations and scientists throughout the Narragansett Bay Region who are studying the natural environment and how it changes over time in the face of human intervention and climate change. By conducting sound science, we are able to make informed decisions about development, restoration and management of our natural environment.
We hope this blog will help citizens understand the science behind the decisions made by local, state and federal organizations with regards to protecting and preserving the natural environment.