Home » Science » Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring

Category: Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring

Volunteers do a great service to Casco Bay

Citizen Stewards received recognition for milestones in Water Quality Monitoring: John Todd, Michelle Brown, Debora Price, Sheila McDonald, Dick Stevens and Erno Bonebakker. Photograph by Kevin Morris

More than 125 volunteers and supporters of Friends of Casco Bay came to the Volunteer Appreciation Celebration on January 23to recognize those who give their time to monitor the water quality of the Bay, clean up shorelines, stencil storm drains, participate in community outreach events, and serve on its Board.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

At the event, ten Citizen Stewards received recognition for milestones in Water Quality Monitoring. Sarah Lyman, Community Engagement Coordinator for Friends of Casco Bay, recognized each of the honorees, remarking, “There is so much power and synergy in being able to connect data and connect people.”

 

Those recognized for their milestones in service:

Erno Bonebakker (25 Years)

Erno has been volunteering since 1993, the first full year of the Friends of Casco Bay’s water quality monitoring program. He and his family moved here from California in 1988, and within a week, Erno attended a meeting about the health of Casco Bay. His passion for Casco Bay has only deepened as he continues to explore, study, and care for it. He divides his time between Chebeague Island and Portland.

 

Dick Stevens (15 Years)

Dick Stevens has been active in the Gulf of Maine Ocean Racing Association and the Portland Yacht Club–winning a few trophies along the way. Sailing the coast and kayaking the lakes and rivers of Maine has given Dick a closer appreciation of the delicate nature of this rugged environment. This inspired him to volunteer as a Citizen Steward for Friends of Casco Bay.

 

Sheila McDonald and Debora Price (10 Years)

Sheila MacDonald and Debora Price have shared a sampling site at Mere Point Boat Launch in Brunswick, where they have found enthusiastic support whenever they explained why they were sampling the water quality of Casco Bay. Sheila serves as deputy director of the Maine State Museum. Debora is retired after teaching, owning a local real estate business, and co-founding an eldercare service, Neighbors, Inc.

 

Michelle Brown (5 Years)

Michelle has a professional background in wildlife management and natural resource conservation. Throughout her career, she has witnessed the power of volunteers and volunteering, so when she and her husband moved to Peaks Island, she was delighted to find out about the Friends of Casco Bay Citizen Stewards Program and how the data that volunteers collect provide important information about the Bay.

 

Craig Burnell (5 Years)

Craig always knew he wanted to become involved in the sciences, studying and learning about our environment. He works at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences as a Research Associate in the Bigelow Analytical Services facility. When not working, he is likely to be training for his next bike race, which will include a race across the country this summer.

 

John Todd (5 Years)

John and his wife Cathie have summered in Phippsburg since the 1960s. They finally moved there full time in 2005 after John retired from a career in international development. They love living on The Basin, where they enjoy swimming and kayaking, especially with their grandchildren.

 

Jan Flinterman (5 Years)

Jan has shared coverage of a water quality site at The Basin, a saltwater inlet on the New Meadows River in Phippsburg, with John Todd and Jim Sidel. Data collected by Citizen Stewards helped convince the Maine Legislature to upgrade this popular anchorage to the highest level of water quality protection, Class SA.

 

Rob Sellin and Natalie West (5 Years)

Rob and Natalie spent many years sailing the world before arriving in Maine in 2011 aboard S/V Wilhelm, their 44-foot steel cutter. They settled in South Portland and have been sampling water quality at the pier at Southern Maine Community College since 2012. They sail the coast of Maine every summer, exploring the extraordinary bays and offshore islands of our state, often accompanied by their adult children and their grandchildren.

Keeping you up to date as we keep an eye on the Bay

Photograph by Kevin Morris

Casco Bay, like ocean water around the world, is changing and changing quickly.

We want you to know that we have changed our volunteer Citizen Stewards Program and our staff-led Water Quality Monitoring efforts in order to stay on top of the science of how the Bay may be changing.

When our organization started in 1989, no one knew the health of the Bay. That was the question we were asked—“How healthy is Casco Bay”—and that is what our first quarter-century of monitoring has enabled us to address.

Thanks to the data that hundreds of our volunteer Citizen Stewards have helped us collect over the past 25 years, in addition to data collected by our staff, we can identify where regions of the Bay are challenged, and where, generally speaking, the Bay is healthy. The snapshots of data volunteers collected are a key aspect of our Casco Bay Health Index and have been vital to our advocacy efforts. This 25-year data set has provided us with a solid foundation from which to launch this next phase of data collection.

Looking forward, our monitoring goals are to:

  • Understand how Casco Bay is changing with respect to climate change, ocean and coastal acidification, sea level rise, and other stressors
  • Conduct more intense data collection efforts in challenged regions of the Bay to try to understand why water quality is so poor, in places such as Portland Harbor and the mouth of the Harraseeket River
  • Involve more volunteers in our efforts to keep Casco Bay blue. While we are utilizing more technology to help us achieve our first two goals, technology will never replace the connections, energy, visibility, and goodwill that volunteers like you provide as ambassadors for the Bay.

In order to meet these goals, we are now monitoring Casco Bay through these four ways:

  1. Our Continuous Monitoring Station collects hourly data to help us address the question “How is Casco Bay changing?” We launched this station more than a year ago, and we are excited about how much we have learned about the Bay in a short time. We intend to keep this Station operating in perpetuity.
  2. Using data sonde technology, our staff will continue to collect data at 12 legacy volunteer Citizen Steward sites—these sites were chosen as representative of regions around the Bay and include healthy sites, challenged sites, and those in between. We think of this monitoring as “the Bay getting a checkup.” How are regions of the Bay doing? Are healthy areas remaining healthy? Are challenged areas continuing to show problems, or might they be improving?
  3. Using our Baykeeper boat, our staff will conduct more intensive efforts in challenged regions of the Bay. If you have seen our Health Index, you have seen that there are “red dot” areas. We are looking closer at those red dot areas and asking, “what may be causing the trouble?” We began this work in 2017, as we conducted transects, from surface to bottom, and across regions, in Portland Harbor and in the Harraseeket River. We will continue to look intensively at these regions.
  4. Using volunteer citizen scientists, we will engage the community to help us collect data and observations on a changing Casco Bay. Our volunteer program is going through a large transition. We are significantly changing the time commitments required to become a citizen scientist, and we are changing the parameters that volunteers collect. We will be asking Citizen Steward Volunteers to collect new kinds of data and record observations on changes in Casco Bay.

In 2016, you may remember that we organized a citizen science “flash mob to Nab Nitrogen.” The event was an incredible success, signaling that there is a huge reservoir of goodwill from people who want to help protect the health of the Bay and are willing to do that in short bursts of data collection efforts. We learned that we can count on our community to help us grab vast amounts of data if we make sampling easier and reduce the time commitment.

For example, we are piloting having volunteers measure the color of our waters as a biological indicator. The general public often considers blue water to indicate healthy oceans and dirty-brown water to indicate polluted water. In fact, scientists attest to color being an excellent indicator of what is happening in our oceans. For more than a century, marine scientists have used the Forel-Ule scale to document the color of oceans and lakes.

The color of our water, measured by this scale, can be an excellent environmental indicator. By using a specially designed smartphone app and a secchi disk, volunteers can help us collect scientific data on the color and clarity of our waters. The protocols for this data collection are easy to follow, and the data helps address a question we often hear: “How is the Bay changing?”

We will also ask volunteers to help us observe and keep track of nuisance and harmful algal outbreaks, which have plagued our waters these past two summers.

By revamping our volunteer monitoring efforts, we have the opportunity to broaden our network of knowledgeable ambassadors for our coastal waters—and make strides in our understanding of the Bay.

In our experience, our volunteers are some of the most active, outspoken, and well-spoken members of our community. We look forward to engaging more volunteers than ever this year. The commitment of these volunteers will send ripple effects through towns around the Bay.

Interactive Casco Bay Health Index

Interactive Health Index

Friends of Casco Bay has developed the Casco Bay Health Index, an easy-to-interpret, visual guide to the health of the Bay. The Index allows us to integrate data from selected water quality parameters into a single value to compare and rank each site as Good, Fair, or Poor.

 

Now we have our new Interactive Health Index!

By clicking here, or the image below, you can see and interact with the Health Index. The Interactive Health Index will open in a new tab. By clicking on the dots you can see more about each sampling location.

Interactive Casco Bay Health Index

Overall, the water quality in Casco Bay is good, but there are instances when low oxygen, low pH, and murky waters are cause for concern. The 2016 Health Index reveals that over 31% of the sites are considered Poor, but more than 36% of the sites meet the Good standard.

The relative rankings were calculated by analyzing dissolved oxygen, water clarity, and pH data from shoreside sites that our volunteer Citizen Stewards monitored from 2012 to 2016. The values we chose to use were the 90th percentile of the dissolved oxygen percent saturation, the mean of the Secchi depth, and the mean of the diurnal differences in pH.

Commonly Asked Questions about the Casco Bay Health Index

 

What is the Casco Bay Health Index?

The Casco Bay Health Index was developed to provide a reliable, uncomplicated composite indicator of the Bay’s health, while also illustrating relative levels of eutrophication. The Index allows the scientifically-sound data collected through Friends of Casco Bay’s Water Quality Monitoring Program to be presented in a format that is easy to understand and to update.

 

What is the goal of the Index?

The goal of the Health Index is to present water quality information in an easy-to-understand visual format by condensing a large amount of existing data into a single score for each monitoring site. By summarizing a suite of environmental parameters into one score for each water quality monitoring site, each site can be ranked relative to one another, and trends—if there are any—can be more readily identified. This product, while quantitative in nature, should be considered a qualitative place to begin to determine environmental health. The sites are assigned colors—red, yellow or green, and are mapped to indicate the health of the waters around Casco Bay. Then we can ask: Which sites, based on the selected criteria, require a closer look? What is the relative condition of sites across a region? Are these conditions improving or degrading over time?

 

Where do the data for the Health Index come from?

The data used for the Health Index come from Friends of Casco Bay’s Citizen Stewards Water Quality Monitoring Program. Volunteers are well-trained using EPA-approved protocols developed by Friends of Casco Bay. They monitor specific sites and collect the data twice a day on 10 appointed Saturdays, between April and October. The Index incorporates the data for a 10-year span of time and can be updated annually by adding the most recent year’s data and eliminating the oldest. We can also look at the Index in five year increments to compare changes over time.

 

Which of the existing water quality parameters are most appropriate to use in the Index?

Friends of Casco Bay currently monitors five physical and chemical water quality parameters through our Citizen Stewards Water Quality Monitoring Program: temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen (DO), Secchi depth, and pH. Of these, three have been selected for use in the Health Index—DO, Secchi depth, and pH.

 

Dissolved oxygen (DO) DO is expressed as Percent Saturation in order to incorporate temperature and salinity. When water holds all the oxygen it can at a given temperature and salinity, it is said to be 100% saturated. At a given site during a given sampling event, temperature and salinity are measured, and DO is measured in milligrams per liter (mg/l) and then compared with the mg/l for 100% saturation in those conditions. We look at the distribution of the Percent Saturation data; we consider the lowest 10th percentile as the worse-case conditions for a particular site. That 10th percentile threshold, expressed as a Percent Saturation number, becomes a component of the Health Index for that site.

 

Simply averaging all the DO data for a site might obscure the full extent of any challenged conditions. For example, if a site is eutrophic, wherein nitrogen pollution levels have resulted in a huge algal bloom, there will be large swings in DO levels between the morning and the afternoon; simply looking at the mean would obscure these swings.

 

Secchi depth Secchi depth is a measure of water clarity. The Index uses a mean of the data to characterize each site. Sites with more organic matter and sediments in the water will be murkier and will exhibit reduced clarity, resulting in shallower (lower) Secchi depth measurements.

 

pH pH is a measure of the acidity of the water. pH data exhibit tremendous variability—diurnal differences through the day and seasonal shifts through the year. The Water Quality Monitoring Program requires that measurements be collected at 7:00 a.m. and then again at 3:00 p.m. on each monitoring day. This allows for a look at the change in conditions over the course of a day. The pH at a site is influenced heavily by respiration and photosynthesis. Respiration by algae, both seaweeds and phytoplankton, adds carbon dioxide to the water, which lowers pH. Measurements collected in the early morning, at 7:00 a.m., reflect the conditions found after a night of respiration and no photosynthesis. Photosynthesis of course requires sunlight and removes carbon dioxide from the water, raising pH. By afternoon, at 3:00 p.m., pH measurements will reflect the result of photosynthesis. The change between the morning and afternoon measurements, termed the diurnal swing, can be indicative of the magnitude of respiration and photosynthesis, and, indirectly, the amount of algae in the water. Since an excessive bloom of algae is one symptom of nitrogen pollution, a large diurnal swing in pH can serve as an indicator of excess nitrogen. A small change in pH is expected in a healthy, productive coastal system, but a relatively large swing can indicate a challenged site. We calculate the difference between the morning and afternoon readings, the diurnal swing, then amass that dataset to calculate the mean for the Health Index for that site.

 

What ranges are most appropriate for the component parameters?

For each of the three components of the Health Index, we have defined ranges, between which we would expect to see worse-case and best-case conditions. These ranges have been defined by looking not only at data for Casco Bay, but also data from other regions, state and federal guidelines, and relevant scientific literature.

 

Parameter: 0 point value 100 point value
Percent Saturation of Dissolved Oxygen 65% 95%
Secchi Depth (meters) 0.2 m 3.0 m
pH (diurnal swing) 0.4 0.1

 

How is the Health Index score calculated?

Each of the components calculated for a given site is plotted along the scale for that parameter. We use a natural logarithm formula to determine where on the scale of 0 to 100 a particular component falls. For example, a site’s calculated 10th percentile threshold for the Percent Saturation parameter will fall between 65% and 95% at a specific point on the scale between 0 and 100. The same is done for the Secchi depth component and the diurnal swing in pH. Now we have three numbers which fall between 0 and 100. These are added together and divided by 3 to obtain the mean, which is the Health Index score for that site.

 

How are the final Health Index scores presented?

After each site has a Health Index score associated with it, it can be classified as Good, Fair, and Poor, determined by score thresholds. A score of 85 and above is considered “Good”, a score of 70 to 84 is “Fair”, and anything below 70 falls into the “Poor” category.

 

What is eutrophication?

Eutrophication occurs when too many nutrients (and occasionally other factors) fuel explosive plant growth. While nitrogen is an essential nutrient in marine systems, too much nitrogen can become a pollutant when it triggers excessive algal growth. This growth can result in low DO measurements, shallow Secchi depth readings, and wide variations in pH.

2016 Casco Bay Health Index

Casco Bay Health Index – Updated with 2016 data

2016 Casco Bay Health Index

 

Friends of Casco Bay has developed the Casco Bay Health Index, an easy-to-interpret, visual guide to the health of the Bay. The Index allows us to integrate data from selected water quality parameters into a single value to compare and rank each site as Good, Fair, or Poor.

Overall, the water quality in Casco Bay is good, but there are instances when low oxygen, low pH, and murky waters are cause for concern. The 2016 Health Index reveals that over 31% of the sites are considered Poor, but more than 36% of the sites meet the Good standard.

The relative rankings were calculated by analyzing dissolved oxygen, water clarity, and pH data from shoreside sites that our volunteer Citizen Stewards monitored from 2012 to 2016. The values we chose to use were the 90th percentile of the dissolved oxygen percent saturation, the mean of the Secchi depth, and the mean of the diurnal differences in pH.

Commonly Asked Questions about the Casco Bay Health Index

 

What is the Casco Bay Health Index?

The Casco Bay Health Index was developed to provide a reliable, uncomplicated composite indicator of the Bay’s health, while also illustrating relative levels of eutrophication. The Index allows the scientifically-sound data collected through Friends of Casco Bay’s Water Quality Monitoring Program to be presented in a format that is easy to understand and to update.

 

What is the goal of the Index?

The goal of the Health Index is to present water quality information in an easy-to-understand visual format by condensing a large amount of existing data into a single score for each monitoring site. By summarizing a suite of environmental parameters into one score for each water quality monitoring site, each site can be ranked relative to one another, and trends—if there are any—can be more readily identified. This product, while quantitative in nature, should be considered a qualitative place to begin to determine environmental health. The sites are assigned colors—red, yellow or green, and are mapped to indicate the health of the waters around Casco Bay. Then we can ask: Which sites, based on the selected criteria, require a closer look? What is the relative condition of sites across a region? Are these conditions improving or degrading over time?

 

Where do the data for the Health Index come from?

The data used for the Health Index come from Friends of Casco Bay’s Citizen Stewards Water Quality Monitoring Program. Volunteers are well-trained using EPA-approved protocols developed by Friends of Casco Bay. They monitor specific sites and collect the data twice a day on 10 appointed Saturdays, between April and October. The Index incorporates the data for a 10-year span of time and can be updated annually by adding the most recent year’s data and eliminating the oldest. We can also look at the Index in five year increments to compare changes over time.

 

Which of the existing water quality parameters are most appropriate to use in the Index?

Friends of Casco Bay currently monitors five physical and chemical water quality parameters through our Citizen Stewards Water Quality Monitoring Program: temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen (DO), Secchi depth, and pH. Of these, three have been selected for use in the Health Index—DO, Secchi depth, and pH.

 

Dissolved oxygen (DO) DO is expressed as Percent Saturation in order to incorporate temperature and salinity. When water holds all the oxygen it can at a given temperature and salinity, it is said to be 100% saturated. At a given site during a given sampling event, temperature and salinity are measured, and DO is measured in milligrams per liter (mg/l) and then compared with the mg/l for 100% saturation in those conditions. We look at the distribution of the Percent Saturation data; we consider the lowest 10th percentile as the worse-case conditions for a particular site. That 10th percentile threshold, expressed as a Percent Saturation number, becomes a component of the Health Index for that site.

 

Simply averaging all the DO data for a site might obscure the full extent of any challenged conditions. For example, if a site is eutrophic, wherein nitrogen pollution levels have resulted in a huge algal bloom, there will be large swings in DO levels between the morning and the afternoon; simply looking at the mean would obscure these swings.

 

Secchi depth Secchi depth is a measure of water clarity. The Index uses a mean of the data to characterize each site. Sites with more organic matter and sediments in the water will be murkier and will exhibit reduced clarity, resulting in shallower (lower) Secchi depth measurements.

 

pH pH is a measure of the acidity of the water. pH data exhibit tremendous variability—diurnal differences through the day and seasonal shifts through the year. The Water Quality Monitoring Program requires that measurements be collected at 7:00 a.m. and then again at 3:00 p.m. on each monitoring day. This allows for a look at the change in conditions over the course of a day. The pH at a site is influenced heavily by respiration and photosynthesis. Respiration by algae, both seaweeds and phytoplankton, adds carbon dioxide to the water, which lowers pH. Measurements collected in the early morning, at 7:00 a.m., reflect the conditions found after a night of respiration and no photosynthesis. Photosynthesis of course requires sunlight and removes carbon dioxide from the water, raising pH. By afternoon, at 3:00 p.m., pH measurements will reflect the result of photosynthesis. The change between the morning and afternoon measurements, termed the diurnal swing, can be indicative of the magnitude of respiration and photosynthesis, and, indirectly, the amount of algae in the water. Since an excessive bloom of algae is one symptom of nitrogen pollution, a large diurnal swing in pH can serve as an indicator of excess nitrogen. A small change in pH is expected in a healthy, productive coastal system, but a relatively large swing can indicate a challenged site. We calculate the difference between the morning and afternoon readings, the diurnal swing, then amass that dataset to calculate the mean for the Health Index for that site.

 

What ranges are most appropriate for the component parameters?

For each of the three components of the Health Index, we have defined ranges, between which we would expect to see worse-case and best-case conditions. These ranges have been defined by looking not only at data for Casco Bay, but also data from other regions, state and federal guidelines, and relevant scientific literature.

 

Parameter: 0 point value 100 point value
Percent Saturation of Dissolved Oxygen 65% 95%
Secchi Depth (meters) 0.2 m 3.0 m
pH (diurnal swing) 0.4 0.1

 

How is the Health Index score calculated?

Each of the components calculated for a given site is plotted along the scale for that parameter. We use a natural logarithm formula to determine where on the scale of 0 to 100 a particular component falls. For example, a site’s calculated 10th percentile threshold for the Percent Saturation parameter will fall between 65% and 95% at a specific point on the scale between 0 and 100. The same is done for the Secchi depth component and the diurnal swing in pH. Now we have three numbers which fall between 0 and 100. These are added together and divided by 3 to obtain the mean, which is the Health Index score for that site.

 

How are the final Health Index scores presented?

After each site has a Health Index score associated with it, it can be classified as Good, Fair, and Poor, determined by score thresholds. A score of 85 and above is considered “Good”, a score of 70 to 84 is “Fair”, and anything below 70 falls into the “Poor” category.

 

What is eutrophication?

Eutrophication occurs when too many nutrients (and occasionally other factors) fuel explosive plant growth. While nitrogen is an essential nutrient in marine systems, too much nitrogen can become a pollutant when it triggers excessive algal growth. This growth can result in low DO measurements, shallow Secchi depth readings, and wide variations in pH.

Volunteer Andy Bertocci

Water quality monitoring season may be over, but the work continues

Volunteer Andy Bertocci
Andy Bertocci has been volunteering with Friends of Casco Bay for 25 years!

Volunteers, such as Andy Bertocci, finished their data collection on October 18, marking the end of the 2016 season. But, both for Andy and the organization, this also marks 25 years of data collection by Friends of Casco Bay!

Over 7 months, from April through October, our water quality monitors record their measurements of water temperature, salinity, water clarity, dissolved oxygen, and pH (the level of acidity of the water). They also make notes on weather conditions, air temperature, and any unusual or intriguing sightings, such as jumping fish, invasions of jellies, and the occasional oil spill.

Although our Citizens Stewards have turned in their data sheets and put their water quality kits to bed until next spring, the work continues back at the office, where staff members are busy. We are organizing, reviewing, and analyzing the data from 37 volunteer monitoring sites around Casco Bay.

Friends of Casco Bay Staff work on creating the Health Index

Database Assistant Sara Biron reviews the online data entries and enters additional data from spreadsheets entered by hand. She is the first to make sure the data makes sense; Citizen Stewards Coordinator Peter Milholland is responsible for checking it twice.

Peter explains the importance of this review, “Our volunteers are trained according to a comprehensive Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) approved by EPA, which makes their data, after quality assurance checks by staff, scientifically defensible.”

Peter then passes the data along to Research Associate Mike Doan. Mike averages the data collected over the past five years for dissolved oxygen, pH, and water clarity (Secchi depth) to update the Casco Bay Health Index, an overview of the health of the waters around Casco Bay. Says Mike, “The Health Index enables us to assess: What is the relative condition of sites across a region? How does the health of regions of the Bay differ from each other? Which sites, based on the selected criteria, require a closer look? Are these conditions improving or degrading over time?

Development and Communications Associate Sarah Lyman then turns Mike’s analysis into an easy-to understand graphic, where each sampling site is assigned a color—red, yellow, or green—onto a map of the Bay. That chart lets everyone see the health of Casco Bay at a glance.

On January 24, Friends of Casco Bay will unveil the updated Casco Bay Health Index and show how different regions of Casco Bay are faring.

Join us on January 24 at our 2017 Volunteer Appreciation Celebration and Annual Meeting at the Hilton Garden Inn, Freeport (snow date 1/25).

Come spring, our volunteers will take up their kits once again, come in for their individual Quality Assurance review, and devote ten Saturdays in 2017, to helping us improve and protect the environmental health of Casco Bay.

Friends of Casco Bay, working with you to keep Casco Bay blue.

How can you keep Casco Bay blue?

Join us as a member by donating today!

Become a volunteer by filling out our volunteer application.

Learn what you can do to make a difference for Casco Bay in our Bay Paper.

Friends of Casco Bay’s mission is to improve and protect the environmental health of Casco Bay through research, advocacy, and education. Concerned citizens founded our organization in 1989, after a report labeled Casco Bay in southern Maine as one of the most polluted estuaries in the nation.

Since then, we have helped reduce pollution into the Bay through stewardship, monitoring water quality, education, and collaborative problem solving. We are on the water year-round, working to protect the water quality of Maine’s busiest Bay.

As a nonprofit conservation organization, we depend on the support of our 2,400 members, the volunteer efforts of more than 250 citizens, and the expertise of 10 staff and 21 Board members.

 

Photo by Kevin Morris

 

Mac Richardson Nabbing Nitrogen Photo credit: Dave Dostie

Nabbing Nitrogen: A water sampling “flash mob”

Too much nitrogen can turn Casco Bay from a healthy blue to an unhealthly green.

Mac Richardson Nabbing Nitrogen Photo credit: Dave Dostie
Mac Richardson Nabbing Nitrogen
Photo credit: Dave Dostie

On a rainy July 10, at precisely 10:10 a.m., 97 volunteers for Friends of Casco Bay hung out over docks or trudged through mud to collect jars of seawater. The analysis of their samples from sites along the Fore River in Portland and South Portland will increase our understanding of nitrogen levels in Portland Harbor. When we receive the lab results, our science staff will construct a map to show nitrogen concentrations at various sites around the harbor.

Already, these efforts have accomplished one of the main goals of the project: to explain to the public that excess nitrogen is one of the factors responsible for turning our mudflats an unhealthy green. All living things need nitrogen to grow, but an overdose can trigger excessive growth of nuisance algae, reduce water clarity, and lower oxygen levels. Sources of excess nitrogen in coastal waters include sewage, pet wastes, decaying plants and animals, and burning fossil fuels.

We partnered with Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the City of South Portland, and we raised funding for the project from Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, RBC Blue Water Project, Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, Bowdoin College Common Good Grant, and our generous members.

Health Index Score over time for Custom House Wharf in Portland

Questions Lead to More Questions

Have you ever heard grown-ups growl at persistently curious children, “You ask too many questions!”?

Never say that to scientists. As soon as they start to research one question, scientists discover more questions along the way — lots more.

Since 1993, Friends of Casco Bay has trained more than 650 citizen scientists to monitor the health of Casco Bay. The data these volunteers collect twice a day on ten selected Saturdays between April and October comprises the basis of the Casco Bay Health Index. The Health Index provides a reliable, easy-to-understand indicator of the Bay’s overall water quality.

Our scientists use the Health Index to begin to address these questions, and more:

  • Which sites, based on below-average water quality, may require a closer look?
  • What is the relative condition of sites across a region?
  • How does each site compare to the other?
  • Are there parts of the Bay where we should be able to expect better or worse conditions?

 

At our Volunteer Appreciation Celebration, Research Associate Mike Doan reported on his analysis of the last five years of water quality data in order to answer another question: How has each site changed over time?

 

Mike said that the Health Index will be updated every year, incorporating the most recent data collected by our citizen scientists. This way, we can track which sites are improving, which are staying the same, and which are being degraded. “Wouldn’t it be great, moving forward, for us to focus more attention on those regions that consistently score lower?” Mike mused.

ike shared a graph of Health Index Score over time for Custom House Wharf in Portland, which showed the greatest change — for the worse. The yellow bars indicate a Health index score of “fair” and the red bars indicate a health index score of “poor”.

Friends of Casco Bay Appreciates Its Volunteers

Photo: Will Everitt, David Brenneman, Lauren Leclerc, Stephen Brezinski, Beth Howe, and Mac Passano Not pictured: Don Gower, Michael Heskanen, and Darren McLellan (Credit Kevin Morris)

Friends of Casco Bay held its annual Volunteer Appreciation Event and Members Meeting on January 27th at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport. Nine Citizen Stewards reached milestones in volunteering of 20 years, 10 years, and 5 years. These citizen scientists were recognized for their contributions to monitoring the health of the waters of Casco Bay. Many of the 170 guests at the event have volunteered for the marine stewardship organization in various capacities.

Darren McLellan has volunteered for Friends of Casco Bay for 20 years. He feels a deep connection to his water quality sampling site at Peabbles Cove in Cape Elizabeth. “My grandmother was a Peabbles, and my family has been here for a couple of hundred years.”

Will Everitt, Friends of Casco Bay’s Development Director, has volunteered as a back-up water quality monitor since he joined the staff in 2006.  

Mac Passano and his wife Beth Howe moved to Chebeague Island after retiring from teaching at the University of Wisconsin in 1991. They have been water quality volunteers at two sites on Chebeague for 10 years and 5 years respectively.

Don Gower retired after 40 years at B&M Baked Beans, where he rose from plant worker to plant manager. He has been sampling at Pinkham Point in Harpswell for 5 years.

Stephen Brezinski and his wife Roberta Brezinski sample water quality at Yankee Marina on the Royal River in Yarmouth. Steve was recognized for 5 years of monitoring, but he has been assisting Roberta unofficially for 17 years.  

Lauren Leclerc and David Brenneman, both professional wetland scientists, have been testing the water at Gun Point in Harpswell for 5 years. More recently, they have been joined by their infant daughter Elyse as an “honorary” monitor.  

Michael Heskanen also was honored for 5 years of service to Friends of Casco Bay’s Citizen Stewards Program. Michael travels by boat from his house in Brunswick to his water quality monitoring station at Indian Rest in Harpswell.

Cousins Island View

Friends helping Friends

Cousins Island View
The view from Nan and Jeanie’s Water Quality Monitoring Site. Photo by Kevin Morris

In April 2009, Nan Bragg and Jeanie Wester met for their first water quality sampling weekend at a site in Cumberland. Before they could open their new water quality testing kit, they realized they wouldn’t need their Secchi disk to measure water depth and clarity. The water was less than six inches deep, and their testing site was rapidly becoming a mudflat as the tide receded. They laughed and alerted Citizen Stewards Coordinator Peter Milholland, who took their suggestion for a new sampling location, one that both women knew well: the Chebeague Island ferry landing on Cousins Island. Jeanie lives a short distance from the dock. As a child, Nan had summered on Cousins Island in Yarmouth before settling in Maine years later.

The Cousins Island site had its own challenges. One morning at high tide, Nan’s cell phone fell out of her pocket, bounced across the float, and plopped into the water. Undaunted, when they returned for their second sampling event later that afternoon, Nan dove into the now shallower water and surfaced with two cell phones.

Jeanie Wester began her professional life as a laboratory chemist. Like many people, she found that science and music are complementary pursuits. She now teaches viola, violin, and piano and performs with symphony and chamber orchestras.

Nan Bragg majored in anthropology and geography, and immediately after college she worked for an environmental planning and design firm. Though chemistry was not included in her studies, she says, “To be a water quality monitor, you don’t need experience, just an interest. The training is thorough. The manual is so clear that I had no trouble learning how to sample for all the parameters we measure. Plus, there is an emergency help line if I really need it!”

[box] This past season, 95 citizen scientists have been sampling all around Casco Bay. Citizen Stewards Coordinator Peter Milholland realizes that summer is short in Maine. He tries to make sure that each of the 35 water quality monitoring stations has several monitors, including backup volunteers and summer interns, who can cover sampling twice a day – 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. – on ten selected Saturdays from April through October. Peter says, “Our water quality monitors truly are connected to the Bay, tracking its changes from month to month, season to season.” If you’d like to see how our volunteers’ data is used to create our Health Index, request a copy of our report A Changing Casco Bay or go online to cascobay.org/health-index.[/box]

The women love their water testing site, which is usually abuzz with people waiting for the Chebeague Island ferry, fishing from the dock, or heading to their boats. Everyone asks them how the Bay is doing. Nan and Jeanie comment that people seem to have become more interested in the health of the Bay in recent years.

Their friendship has deepened over the past seven years, as has their volunteering for Friends in other capacities. They frequently visit the South Portland office of Friends of Casco
Bay to help assemble membership mailings. True to their upbeat nature, they don’t regard the hours of folding, stuffing, and stamping solicitation letters as tedious. They agree, “It’s not about the envelopes; it’s that we get to sit around the table and share stories with other volunteers who care about the environment. It’s another way we feel connected to the Bay.” As Nan remarks, “I grew up boating, swimming, and eating seafood, and I wanted to do something to help protect the Bay.”

Peter Milholland sees that attitude in all our volunteers. “The best thing about working with our volunteers is seeing how dedicated they are. From their Saturdays collecting water samples or spending time at our office stuffing envelopes, they are giving back to this Bay that provides so much for all of us.”