Seeding new scientific investigations with broad publication of 28-year water quality record

Buzzards Bay inlet photo by Julie Waite

Above: Buzzards Bay inlet in North Falmouth, MA.

Nearly thirty years ago, the Buzzards Bay Coalition founded the Baywatchers Monitoring Program. The monitoring program forges a unique partnership involving local citizen scientists, professional scientists, and two internationally renowned research institutions—Marine Biological Laboratory and the Woodwell Climate Research Center. Now, the first 28 years’ worth of Baywatchers’ water quality data has been published in the international scientific journal, Scientific Data. Publication will improve access to the information for researchers around the world who may use it to develop new insights into protecting Buzzards Bay and other coastal waterways.

“It’s gratifying to see the Baywatchers data published, and it’s exciting to think about how it may inspire new studies,” said Dr. Rachel Jakuba, science director of the Coalition and the lead author of the journal article. “We hope getting this data out in an open-access, peer-reviewed journal will encourage scientists to use it to test new hypotheses and develop new insights into Bay health.”

Coalition staff and citizen scientists (residents who have been trained) collect water quality information at more than 200 stations around the Bay each summer, from May through September, managed by Tony Williams, the Coalition’s director of monitoring programs. Data document the effects of nitrogen pollution including low oxygen that threatens marine life. Water samples are analyzed at the MBL in Woods Hole, under the direction of Woodwell Center Senior Scientist Dr. Christopher Neill and MBL senior laboratory technician Richard McHorney. Baywatchers is one of the largest, and longest-running water quality monitoring programs in the country.

“Baywatchers data directly influence policy by documenting impaired waters, making the public aware of long-term water quality trends, and importantly, documenting how water quality improves when communities upgrade water infrastructure, like fixing antiquated wastewater treatment plants,” said Dr. Neill, a long-time collaborator on the project. “They also show the Bay’s waters are warming rapidly.”

Baywatchers data have been used to identify nearly 30 bodies of water around the Bay that do not meet federal standards under the Clean Water Act, evaluate wastewater discharge permits, support the development of targets for reduction of nitrogen pollution, develop strategies for reaching those goals, and increase public awareness and generate support for actions to control nutrient pollution and improve water quality.

“Over the past 30 years, the Coalition has prioritized our commitment to comprehensive water quality monitoring above all else—placing sound science at the core of our work and successes in restoring and protecting the Bay. It is a function that continues to develop as we expand the density of our monitoring stations, parameters measured, methods for collection, and scientific collaborations. Making our entire dataset available through peer-reviewed publication is an important step and I’m indebted to the many scientists, citizens, and funders who got us to this milestone.” said Buzzards Bay Coalition President Mark Rasmussen.

Williams, who oversees the program’s operation and conducts quality assurance on the data, said the involvement of many partners is key to its success. “We couldn’t do this without the dedication of both staff at our partner research institutions and the local residents who go through the training to become citizen scientists,” he said.

The greatest threat to the health of the Bay is nitrogen pollution. The main sources of nitrogen are private septic systems and underperforming wastewater treatment plants. Nitrogen pollution promotes algae growth, eliminates the eelgrass that provides fish and shellfish habitat, and can kill fish and shellfish directly by reducing dissolved oxygen levels.

In the 1980s, the Bay’s declining water quality and threatened coastal habitats highlighted the need for restoration and protection efforts and for reliable data to guide that work. The newly established Coalition recognized early on that consistent, long-term data on water quality data could spur actions to improve the Bay’s environment and collaborated with the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program to initiate the Baywatchers Monitoring Program.

For the first fifteen years of the program’s history, lab analyses were overseen by Dr. Brian Howes of UMass Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology before the lab analyses were moved to the Marine Biological Laboratory, initially under the direction of Dr. Hugh Ducklow.

The Baywatchers Monitoring Program has been funded by the Buzzards Bay Coalition primarily through contributions from the organization’s members and private foundations, legislative support  from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program, and the EPA.

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