Phosphate Fight: Learning and monitoring as a BARC volunteer
BY Bay Area Restoration Council
ON December 14, 2020
I, Rebeca Nascimento, an aspiring environmental technician, wanted to meet people eager to do their best for the environment and be directly involved with conservation work. Additionally, as a Hamilton newcomer, I wanted to become aware of environmental issues in this city. Having that in mind, I was fortunate to join the Community Water Leaders program developed by BARC this past fall.
Not only have we gained knowledge and connected with local environmentalists through a series of virtual workshops, but we also got hands-on experience with a cohort of fellow volunteers. Since September, the water leaders have been sampling and testing water throughout the watershed. Another volunteer (Matthew) and I were responsible for testing nine sites, including Bayfront Park, just above Albion Falls, Windermere Basin, and Smokey Hollow.
At each site, we measure water quality parameters that are essential for a healthy water body. We check the temperature, which influences other parameter levels and some biological functions of organisms. We measure the acidity of the water as aquatic animals can be harmed if the pH is too high or too low. We also monitor the concentration of materials and salts that are dissolved in the water. This is important because dissolved solids include a variety of potential pollutants and too much salt dissolved in the water can be fatal to plants and wildlife. Lastly, we track the amount of oxygen and nutrients (in the form of phosphates) available for aquatic life. Oxygen is vital to many organisms such as fish and amphibians that utilize it for their respiration, and nutrients are responsible for the growth and survival of living organisms, especially plants.
The parameter I was most excited to monitor is the amount of phosphate! This is because phosphates must fall within specific levels in order to have a healthy ecosystem. As phosphate is a nutrient, a certain amount is crucial for the growth of plants and animals. However, in excess, it causes uncontrolled growth of plants such as algae in what is known as an algal bloom. Those colonies of algae act like a blanket, which increases water temperature, and when they die, the dissolved oxygen in the water is used up. Changing temperature and less oxygen are harmful to our local fish and insects, like cisco and dragonflies.
Testing phosphate levels is very simple. We use a visual kit that consists of self-filling ampoules, a comparator, and a sample cup. Basically, we fill the sample cup with the water to be tested, then we insert the ampoule in the sample cup and snap the tip of the ampoule so the water sample is pulled in. After making sure the sample is well mixed with the reagent inside the ampoule, we let it react for 5 minutes. The yellow colour is produced and its intensity is directly proportional to the phosphate concentration. Then, we compare the colour produced with the standards in the comparator, which gives us a number that refers to the concentration of phosphates in that water.
As we are dealing with nature, which is a complex system where everything is interconnected, many contaminated sites are a result of pollutants that come from a variety of sources. Therefore, water quality monitoring is critical to ensuring that our water remains healthy. The sooner we discover an issue, the faster it can be resolved. Preventing is easier than recovery.
How can you help prevent phosphorous from entering waterways? As individuals, we can do our part by reducing or avoiding a phosphorous runoff. For that, you can adopt sustainable gardening and planting filtering plants. Some actions you can practice include: using a fertilizer free of phosphorous; applying less fertilizer; cleaning up your yard debris to prevent them from going in the road and, eventually, to drains, streams, and/or rivers; and planting native wildflowers, trees, and shrubs that are able to soak up excess nutrients.
Having good water quality is not only beneficial for fish and other living organisms that live there but also for human beings. We are all connected and we all appreciate a place free of or with minimal pollution to spend our leisure time.
Are you passionate about nature, concerned about environmental issues, and willing to do more? Well, volunteer work is an excellent opportunity to develop some skills, gain more knowledge, and put hands-on to help improve our environment. You do not need to hold a diploma or degree. You just need to be willing to give some of your time alongside your desire to learn and get outside. Sounds like you? Join the Community Water Leaders in spring!
Community Water Leaders volunteer