Early on a July morning on the southeast side of Elihu Island, at the entrance to Wequetequock Cove in Stonington, Sally Cogan starts the engine of a small Boston Whaler, loads a cooler and several bags of equipment into the cramped quarters, and then welcomes aboard Sarah Janssens and Emma Gronda. Together they navigate through the calm waters to a spot they agree is halfway between Goat Island and Barn Island, then turn off the engine and go to work.
They don yellow rubber gloves that extend to their elbows, collect water samples in small plastic containers, then take the temperature of the water samples before placing them back in the cooler. Next, as gulls call out in the distance and an oystercatcher flies by, they collect several more water samples, to which they add eight drops of manganous sulfate and eight more of alkaline potassium iodide azide and shake them up.
The stringent protocol the women follow ensures that the results of this week’s water testing for dissolved oxygen, turbidity, chlorophyll, salinity, nutrients and other factors will be comparable to the samples collected in previous months and years.
The women are citizen scientists, and their work is designed to better understand the health of the waters of Fishers Island Sound and the nearby waterways. They are all affiliated with Clean Up Sound and Harbors (CUSH), a non-profit organization that has been monitoring water quality at as many as 15 locations around the Mystic River, Stonington Harbor, Wequetequock Cove, Sandy Point and Little Narragansett Bay for at least a dozen years.
“I’ve always loved the ocean,” says Cogan, 71, a retired schoolteacher who has lived in Stonington for 21 years. “I’m a scuba diver, I’ve traveled to the Galapagos, to Tahiti, to the Sea of Cortez, and I got a fellowship to do dolphin research in Japan. So when I saw that the local water quality was deteriorating and I heard about CUSH and their water testing program, I decided to help out.”
That was 10 years ago. Today Cogan serves on the CUSH board of directors and leads the water monitoring program, managing 25 other volunteer citizen scientists and ensuring that the water samples get to the University of Rhode Island for analysis within the small window of time required by the protocol.
“I like being part of the solution,” Cogan says. “Sometimes you feel helpless about what’s going on in the environment, and this is something I can do to feel helpful.”
The water testing program is a collaboration between CUSH, the URI Watershed Watch Program, and Save the Sound’s Unified Water Study. The data is shared with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which use it when making decisions about water pollution prevention efforts and water quality protection measures.
The program is one of dozens of citizen science projects that local volunteers can get involved with to help scientists from universities and state agencies gather information about wildlife and the environment to better understand changing conditions.
Based on the data collected by the volunteers, the deteriorating water quality in the region has largely to do with inputs of nitrogen from wastewater, fertilizers and stormwater runoff that causes harmful algae blooms, low oxygen levels, and other unhealthy conditions. It has also led to an abundance of Cladophora, a genus of seaweed that is increasingly clogging waterways.
After pulling up the anchor – which was entangled in Cladophora – and a brief interlude when the boat motor wouldn’t start, Cogan, Janssens and Gronda, their intern from Roger Williams University, make their way under the railroad bridge to Wequetequock Inlet, where they collect another series of water samples.
Janssens, 69, a Realtor in Mystic, started volunteering with the water testing program two years ago after supporting CUSH for many years. She, too, noticed the decline in water quality in the area and was motivated to do her part.
“I enjoy being out on the water, and I also find it fascinating to see the differences in water quality when we start in the spring compared to when the weather gets hotter,” she says. “I like to see the results to learn more about what’s happening and what needs to be done to improve things.”
She hopes her work as a citizen scientist will lead to creation of educational materials that can be shared with area neighbors to inform them about how their choices – like fertilizer use – affect local water quality.
Back at Elihu Island, where Cogan’s extended family owns several summer homes, the water samples are unloaded and brought into the kitchen. Some are filtered to identify chlorophyll levels as a measure of water clarity, while other samples have additional chemicals added to them for later laboratory processing.
As the work continues, volunteers from other testing sites arrive to deliver their samples to Cogan so all can be brought to URI before noon for analysis. One of those volunteers is Mike Fergione, 69, a retired Pfizer research scientist from Stonington who has 37 years of experience working in a laboratory.
“One of the reasons I volunteer is because the testing is right up my alley; it’s easy for me,” he says. “But it’s also fun and rewarding to give back to the community, to do something to help the overall water quality rather than do nothing. I’m not a morning person, but it’s nice to get out at that time of day when everything is quiet and still.”
“The best part is being out in the early morning by myself doing the sampling,” she says. “Seeing that oystercatcher this morning was great. It’s a beautiful little cove, and it gives me great pleasure to be in the cove and try to do something to help it.”