Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Monitoring the Rivers Nassau: Volunteers Keeping an Eye on Water Quality

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Monitoring the Rivers Nassau: Volunteers Keeping an Eye on Water Quality

Article excerpt

Byline: Amelia A. Hart, Nassau Neighbors staff writer

Ask Deena Wolfe if she's concerned about water quality in Nassau County, and she'll reply, "Well, I live here."

Armed with a bucket, a bottle and a collection of tubes and vials that would make a mad scientist envious, Wolfe is putting that concern into action as a watershed action volunteer.

She's one of 30 volunteers around the county who donate their time to help the St. Johns River Water Management District monitor the quality of water in Nassau County and educate people about how their actions affect the water they drink, swim in, fish in, work on and depend on for life.

Without the homemakers, kayakers, students, retirees, professors, blacksmiths and others who volunteer, the district wouldn't know much about the state of water resources in North Florida, said Bill Watkins, who founded the Watershed Action Volunteer program in 1994.

But equally important, Watkins said, is how the program provides a way for people who care about water to be directly involved in protecting it.

"It's kind of like hands-on education," Watkins said. "That was the idea, to get people connected, to make them feel like they're a part of the water and the water's a part of them."

In Nassau County, 17 volunteers, under the guidance of coordinator Paula Staples, are testing water quality at more than 20 spots.

Once a month, volunteers carefully record a litany of water quality indicators -- temperature, chlorinity, salinity, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, clarity and others -- that create a statistical snapshot of a waterway.

On a recent Friday morning, Wolfe was conducting water quality tests on the Amelia River while traffic on the Shave Bridge rumbled overhead.

Wolfe scooped up a large bucket of water and poured portions into various vials, often adding chemicals that changed the water's color.

The testing looks more difficult than it is, Staples said.

"It's cookbook testing," Staples said. "If you can follow a cookbook, you can do this."

Even as Wolfe stood on the riverbank recording her findings, a giant plastic bag fell from the bridge to land in the river behind her.

Finding out what people will throw in the water has been the biggest insight for Fernandina Beach resident Terry Stewart, who volunteers as a water quality monitor and educational presenter.

Like many of the volunteers, he also participates in annual cleanups the district holds to pull trash out of area waterways. Items that Stewart has found include tires and refrigerators. During cleanups, others have been found items like bottles, cans, small appliances and even a complete gym set.

"It's just amazing what people do to something we're so dependent on for life," Stewart said.

More than 1,000 volunteers in 13 of the 19 counties included in the water management district now participate in the Watershed Action Volunteer program.

"It's the best bang for your dollar you can get in the water management business," Watkins said.

Initially funded by an Environmental Protection Agency grant, Watershed Action Volunteer is now jointly funded by the district and participating counties. …

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