As Save The Bay’s Riverkeeper, I respond to issues out on the rivers and Bay that are brought to our attention by the public.. People are often concerned when they see or smell something that isn’t right. Many times, what they are seeing is natural, but can be a result of excess seaweed, algae or plant growth. While the Bay looks beautiful, our rivers are bringing in nutrients and other pollution from the upper watershed that washes off the land. This invisible pollution can feed the plant growth and cause algae blooms. This is what I found yesterday when I went to Festival Pier in Pawtucket. Fishermen there thought they were seeing sewage, when what they were actually seeing was decomposing sea lettuce and other brown algae. These algae had blown up the Bay with the afternoon sea breeze and accumulated along the pier. Still, we’re grateful to have eyes and ears out there on the water, alerting us to possible problems.
When trying to decide if something is a natural occurrence or something to worry about, look for the the following clues:
Sewage: Be on the lookout for milky or grey colored water that contains bits of toilet paper or other floating material. It will also have a strong sewage odor.
Foam: Natural foam often accumulates on rivers below dams or in other areas where water is moving swiftly. It can catch in tree snags and will usually be a light brown or yellow color from the accumulation of pollen and dust. It will fall apart and dissolve when shaken with a stick. Foam caused by pollution from soap will be white and fluffy and will come back together if it is touched.
Sheen: If you see rainbow sheen on the surface of the water, check it with a stick as well. In wetlands or other areas of stagnant water, bacterial breakdown of organic matter will cause a shiny film on the surface. If it breaks up when touched, it is natural. Oil sheen from pollution is generally very light and will hold together when touched. It will also have a strong oily odor. Oil sheen tends to spread out on the surface of the water.
Red or Orange Sediment: If you see a bright orange film on the bottom of a creek or wetland, this is most likely due to iron oxide. This is caused by low oxygen environments in wetlands and groundwater where iron dissolves in the water. When this water exits the ground or wetland and oxygen is reintroduced, the iron comes out of solution and settles on the bottom.
If you do see something that is concerning, try to send us a photo so that we can help diagnose the problem. Send us an address so we can check on Google Earth, and potentially go out to see the problem. You can reach Save The Bay at 272-3540 and firstname.lastname@example.org. For emergencies, call DEM’s 24-hour response number at 401-222-3070. To report a sewage spill to the Narragansett Bay Commission, dial their main line at 401-461-6540 and press 9.