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Science Interns Assisting with Water Quality Studies

By | July 26th, 2017

This summer, for the first time, Raritan Headwaters welcomed two science interns to assist us with research on water quality and pollutants in local rivers and streams.

Kate Arnao of Mine Hill and Phillip Worster of Denville are working with Dr. Kristi MacDonald, our science director, to monitor macroinvertebrates, chemicals and bacteria in rivers and streams; and help with a pilot study on microplastics and another study on salamanders.

“These projects involve a lot of field work and a lot of lab work,” noted Kristi. “We seriously couldn’t have accomplished the amount of work we did this summer without Kate and Phillip.”

Kate, a graduate of Dover High School, will be entering her final semester this fall at Centenary University, where she is majoring in environmental science. This past spring, as part of her course studies, she researched invasive plants for Raritan Headwaters.

“I’ve always felt very connected to nature and the environment,” said Kate, who hopes find a job at an environmental firm after graduating. “It’s really interesting to see how we can find out the health of the watershed by doing monitoring.”

Phillip, a graduate of Oratory Prep, is a rising junior at University College Cork in Ireland, where he also majors in environmental science. Next semester, he’ll be studying in the Netherlands.

The two interns helped RHA with its annual stream monitoring, which includes using nets to scoop “benthic macroinvertebrates” – small aquatic creatures, including the larvae of mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies – from streambeds. The presence of these macroinvertebrates is an indication of water quality.

They also assisted with chemical monitoring of streams, using a special probe device to measure water qualities like temperature, salinity, nitrates and conductivity. Another task was collecting stream water samples, which are laboratory tested for e coli bacteria.

New this year is Raritan Headwaters’ pilot study to measure microplastics in rivers and streams near wastewater treatment plant outflows. “It’s an emerging contaminant of concern,” explained Kristi. Contaminants like PCBs stick to microplastics, and creatures at the bottom of the food chain eat them, mistaking them for food.

“A lot of microplastics tend to be clothing fibers from washing machines and ingredients in products like body scrubs that we use in the shower,” said Philip. Treatment plants, he added, “remove a lot of plastics, but there are a lot more that reach our water.”

To launch the microplastics study, RHA staff and interns stood in rivers with fine mesh nets for an hour at a time to collect solids in the water. After drying the solids and removing organic materials like leaf and twig pieces, they’re able to study the plastics that remain under a microscope. By calculating the volume of water flowing through the nets, they can determine the concentrations of microplastics in local waterways.

Next up for the interns is helping Raritan Headwaters with a new study of salamanders along the banks of rivers and streams in the watershed. “Salamanders are a good indicator of whether there’s pollution in the environment,” said Phillip. “It’s a very good sign to find salamanders.”

Both interns are finding their summer projects valuable. “I really enjoy the field work,” commented Kate. “It’s not even like work to me.”

In addition helping with water studies, Phillip is working with Melissa Mitchell Thomas, our information technology and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) manager, to learn GIS mapping. “I think it’s a good skill to have in the workplace – and it’s also just fun,” he said.

Thanks, Kate and Phillip, for your work this summer – and good luck in your future endeavors!

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