Restoring The Runnins River This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   Restoring the Runnins River

We are a group of four students who enjoyed our Environmental Science class in ninth grade and went on to identify a local environmental problem involving the water quality of the Runnins River. These last two years we have been working on a practical "solution to the pollution."
Using advanced field techniques to test various aspects of the river's health, we have identified point sources of pollution. We tested for the amount of dissolved oxygen (oxygen dissolved in water) in the water, for the level of fecal coliform (a type of bacteria found in mammal waste), pH, temperature, turbidity, and we classified the types and amounts of Benthic Macroinvertebrates.
We have formed a general conclusion: the fecal coliform level is much too high while the dissolved oxygen level is too low. For the fecal coliform this is especially true during and following rainstorms - something which is corroborated by the fecal coliform levels in the mouth of the river which must be closed to shell fishing. The low dissolved oxygen is a chronic problem, and will not sustain a balanced ecosystem. In addition, toxins from highways which cross the river make it impossible to support biological life for any length of time.
Armed with this information we were able to determine what technological, educational, and promotional materials could be used to combat these problems. We have many proposals, and each solution relies on the others. The idea is that with lots of problems on this section of the river, all the solutions must work together to restore a balance to the ecosystem. We propose the installation of an aerator, and a program of community awareness to initiate rebuilding of faulty septic systems. After these measures have been taken, we would support the construction of fish ladders at the two large dams to bring back the shad population to the Runnins River.
Generally, our philosophy is that you can't just solve an environmental problem of this type with a "technological fix" alone. Certainly we believe that we should use technology whenever it is possible to make problems manageable. However, we are committed to the idea that knowledge about the river is an integral part of any solution. The people affected by the pollution of this river should know as much as we do about the river so that it becomes as important to them as it is to us.
Our interest also stemmed from our freshman year environmental science curriculum. For the class, each of the team members did a project surrounding some facet of the Runnins River, as a way of learning about ecosystems. We learned about macro invertebrates, the shad run, waste water treatment systems, and the ecological makeup of the Runnins. Bringing with us the experience from those projects, we formed a four-person team to investigate pollution levels and sources along the river.
One of our study group members is an avid fisherman. We worry because the river is home to Rhode Island's oldest natural shad run. Only 10 years ago, local fishermen have told us, the shad run was so thick that it was as if you could walk across the river on a moving carpet of silver fish. Now, there is only a minute shad population spawning, and few fish have survived within the last few years.
Our testing led us to conclude that faulty septic systems were installed in a housing development in the middle '80s. This seems to be one of the major contributors of the high fecal coliform, which alarms shell fishermen and public health advocates. Many other factors have contributed to the lack of fish; one of these is that a major commercial area contributes toxins such as road salt, sand, and car oil. Also, golf course fertilizers and those of local residential areas bordering the Runnins have resulted in overgrown plant life. This, in turn, makes it impossible for fish who used to navigate the river to do so, now alarming local fishermen and river advocates.
Over the past two years we have done extensive monitoring of one particular section of the Runnins River. This included performing dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, and fecal coliform tests, and the collection of benthic macro invertebrates. The results of our testing allowed us to pinpoint specific pollution sources within the mile of the river that we are focusing on.
The Dissolved Oxygen (D.O.) test determines how many milligrams of oxygen are in a liter of water. From the results of our D.O. testing we pinpointed some definite pollution problems within this section of the river. At one site, where a river tributary runs through a golf course, we found an exceptionally low D.O. as a consequence of a chain reaction beginning with fertilizers leaking off the golf course and into the stream. As a result, the bacteria population explodes, using up the D.O. Algae also eats the nutrients, therefore an algae bloom is created, whose decomposition uses up more D.O.
D.O. is affected by the temperature of the water; cold water can hold more D.O. Shallow water is more likely to be warmed by the sun, making the D.O. levels lower. Because of this, we wanted to know whether the Grist Mill pond, at the end of our section, (just before the dam and waterfall) is a shallow pond. This would help to explain the D.O. level. It would also give us a rough topographical map of the pond's bottom. This would be useful in identifying a place for an aerating fountain, and in determining whether dredging would be necessary.
We took two canoes to the pond tied lines across the pond, at 20-foot intervals. Each line had a knot every 20 feet, where we measured the depth, turbidity, and water temperature. We also measured the pH level and D.O. at three different points in the pond.
The results showed that the pond was indeed shallow, six feet maximum and about 50 percent was six inches or shallower. These depth problems were most likely caused by sediment build up as a result of road sand being washed into the river and the pond. The pH levels and D.O. levels were uniform at all three points, and were insufficient to support most large aquatic species.
To raise the D.O. level in this portion of the river we propose installing fountains and/or other types of aeration systems. A fountain would fully aerate the pond, reduce the sediment, and the nutrients, and it would add aesthetic beauty. In a fountain the water is shot into the air, so that the air mixes with the water. Then the air filled droplets return to the pond and distribute more Dissolved Oxygen into the water. Fountains come in many different shapes and sizes, Some names of various spray patterns are the geyser, the crown, the plum tree, and the plume model. The fountain uses an electric motor to pump the water into the air.
Fecal Coliform is a bacteria found in the waste of warm-blooded animals. A high level of fecal coliform signifies a large amount of waste in the water. Because waste carries disease, the more fecal coliform present, the greater the chance that human disease is there as well.
The procedure we used for measuring the fecal coliform levels in the river was the Millipore Membrane Filtration Technique. This technique involved taking a sample of water, sucking it through a filter using a vacuum, and then placing that filter paper in a petri dish, with a nutrient, in an incubator overnight. The fecal colonies feed off the nutrient and within 24 hours they grow so that you can count them. Fecal Coliform was measured in number of colonies per 100 milliliters of water. Public Health officials take this seriously; recently a nearby town was thrown into a water crisis because a count of total coliform was found in the single digits. When we found fecal coliform in the thousands, we realized the river was a public health threat.
As a result of our fecal coliform tests we traced pollution of the river to one particular neighborhood built 10 years ago as a development. We found two storm drain pipes leading right into the river with fecal coliform levels of 3,620 and 1,140. Obviously, an enormous amount of waste is flowing directly from that neighborhood into the river.
Last year our group of four did a fair amount of community outreach. We began by sending a newsletter out to all the people in the river neighborhood. This newsletter explained who we are and what we were doing. Then we conducted a phone survey that asked the residents about septic and lawn maintenance. Our third step was to hold a community meeting, so that we could inform the community of our river work and our results.
The last measure we took was to bring our health concerns to the Seekonk Board of Health. They helped to validate our information and were truly concerned that our fecal coliform levels were so high.
Once we realized that the D.O. levels were too low in certain areas, and the fecal coliform levels were too high in certain areas, our next action was to see what kind of biological life was living at these different sites. In order to find out we collected several samples of Benthic Macro invertebrates over a two-year period. Benthic Macro invertebrates are insects that live on the bottom of the river.
A macro invertebrate habitat consists of a shallow area with a rock bottom where the water runs rapidly. In order to collect the insects from their habitat we used the Kick net method which consists of scrubbing the rocks in an 18 by 18 inch area on the river bottom for two minutes upstream of a net, so that all of the material scrubbed off ends up in the net.
We concluded that because of the low dissolved oxygen rates caused by fertilizers and sewage, the stream cannot support the proper amount of biological life that a high water quality stream can.
Solving the problems with the D.O. levels and the nutrient levels would allow the stream to serve as an adequate fish habitat. There is still one problem that would prevent the fish from inhabiting the river: two large dams and waterfalls that the fish are unable to swim up, because there are no fish ladders for them. We propose constructing fish ladders at both sites so that the fish are able to swim up the river to spawn. This would also, hopefully, restore the old shad run to the Runnins River.
To understand the problem of the shad, you first must understand their habits and their mating. The adult shad return to the river where they were born and swim upstream to an area to spawn. They then return to the sea and will return to the river as many as five or six times in their life time. The maximum life expectancy of a shad is about eight years. While the adults are returning to the sea the eggs drift down the river until they hatch, which is between 2-15 days later. The infant shad then must swim back up the river until they find a slow moving pool or a pond in which to spend the summer. Later in the fall after growing they go back down the river to the sea where they will stay until they are three to four years old. Then they return to the river to spawn, starting the cycle again.
Without the slow moving water they died. For the last 10 years this has been happening, so the shad run is now all but gone.
The answer to this problem may be solved by installing at least one, preferably two, fish ladders on the two Runnins River dams. These ladders would give the infant shad a way to get to a pond to live during the summer. There is evidence that this proposal could work because it has worked on numerous shad runs in this area.
The Runnins River fish ladders will not only be used by migrating shad, but by other aquatic animals as well. Sport fishing would return to this portion of the river for the first time in over a decade.
If this river is not restored to its proper ecological balance, its future as a place that the community at large can enjoy will be lost. There is the possibility of having parks, fishing, swimming and boating along this river. If measures are not taken, it becomes just another polluted river, with a sign saying "Not For Recreational Use - D.E.M.," at every bridge.
In conclusion, our team has hope for the future of the Runnins River. We would like to spread this attitude throughout the river's community, so that the river's water quality can be restored. This accomplishment will in turn inspire us, as well as others, to be committed to the well-being of the river.


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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