Monitoring Bay water quality takes an entire village to get it done

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Rich McHorney doesn’t collect water samples, but he plays an integral role in the Baywatchers water quality monitoring program.

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A senior research assistant at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, McHorney oversees the analysis of the hundreds of samples that are collected each summer for nutrient analysis.

“This is my primary focus during the summer,” said McHorney, who works at the Ecosystems Center at MBL. “The environmental monitoring work that the Baywatchers program does is important for our local ecosystem, and we want to be helpful.”

The tests that McHorney and colleagues run measure, among other things, the status of nitrogen pollution, which remains the most consequential ongoing threat to the health of the Bay. The results of these tests inform government policy at the federal, state, and local level, not to mention preservation and restoration efforts.

“The quality of the work that Rich and his team do is critical for making our Baywatchers program a well-respected and trusted source for information about the state of the Bay,” said Rachel Jakuba, the Coalition’s science director. “We are so fortunate to have a world-class scientific institution right here in our neighborhood that is willing to commit to this ongoing program.”

McHorney and MBL play a critical role in a large network of people, partner organizations and supporters who make the Coalition’s water quality monitoring efforts successful. This year, the Baywatchers program will mark its 30th season, a big milestone for a program that is already the region’s longest-running and largest, volunteer-driven scientific effort.

“The Coalition organizes and facilitates the Baywatchers program, but it could not happen without the active support of the hundreds of individuals who are trained to collect samples and the scientific advisors and institutions who are the foundation of our data quality,” said Mark Rasmussen, president of the Coalition. “The support that we receive from members, foundations and state government is also critical to keeping this important work going.”

Indeed, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently awarded a $50,000 grant to help fund the program for 2021, thanks to the advocacy of Senators Mark Montigny, Michael Rodrigues, Susan Moran and Representative Antonio Cabral.

The program faced a particularly grave challenge in 2020 with the Coronavirus pandemic. During the spring, when the entire state was in lockdown, it was unclear whether the effort would be able to go forward. The Coalition’s 160 volunteers, however, stepped up to the challenge, adapting to the new reality with masks and social distancing regulations without missing a sampling day.

MBL adopted new processes as well, ensuring that McHorney and his assistants were able to work safely. The entire lab moved to a new space, and they developed a sanitation process as part of taking in the hundreds of samples delivered to Woods Hole.

“Think of the most over chlorinated pool you’ve ever swam in and that was pretty much what we set up to create a clean break between the field operation and the lab operation,” McHorney said. “And that added a little to the time and the difficulty of receiving the samples, but we made that all work. In the end, it worked great.”

The remainder of the laboratory analysis proceeded as it always does over a two-week period in which McHorney and his assistants filter and prepare each of the 200 samples that are collected during each of the four nutrient sampling days to test for organic and inorganic nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon, and the algal pigment chlorophyll and its immediate breakdown product, pheophytin.

Once the analysis is complete and the data has been recorded, MBL and the Coalition work in tandem to review the results for accuracy before the annual production of the Bay Health Index, which measures the nutrient-related health of more than 100 harbors, coves, salt ponds and rivers throughout Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound.

The index is the sum of five key health indicators: nitrogen (organic and inorganic), dissolved oxygen, algal pigments, and water clarity. Data are combined and reported as a single score that provides a snapshot of a waterway’s health. A Bay Health score of 100 represents pristine water and 0 represents water severely polluted with nitrogen. The scores are published annually on the Coalition’s website, which also displays the annual score for each indicator and trends over time.

Category: On the Bay

Working to Save Buzzards Bay

The Buzzards Bay Coalition is a membership-supported organization dedicated to improving the health of the Buzzards Bay ecosystem for all through education, conservation, research, and advocacy.

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