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KINGSTON—Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist and Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, paid a visit to the University of Rhode Island on Wednesday to speak with university educators and researchers about environmental projects in which they are involved. The visit also involved a tour of URI’s research facilities at the Coastal Insitute, which houses initiatives such as the Watershed Watch program.
“We support a lot of research and education programs performed at Land Grant universities such as URI, and it is good for me to have a insight on what those programs are doing,” said Woteki. “The work being done, like the water sampling outline today, is just one more example of how this partnership between research, education, and extension had provided insights for local communities to improve the overall environment.”
Woteki spend the late morning hours listening to a number of professors’ projects, information from which she will relay back to USDA offices in order that they can more fully understand the impact their funding and support is having at the grassroots level.
“We are increasingly building communities of practice,” said Woteki. “All of the extensions I see are helpful in assessing the impacts of funding from the Department of Agriculture, and also providing information for what we should be doing for the future.”
URI researcher Greg Bonynge, who serves as a Geospatial Extension Specialist in the Department of Natural Resources Science, detailed for Woteki his work with the University’s Renewable Resources Extension Act Program (RREA).
“In a nutshell, I work to help people use data that can drive all sorts of maps and analyses and things,” said Bonynge. “Our main goal is to help community groups, such as conservation groups and land managers, use GIS technology to guide their land management decisions.”
According to Bonynge, RREA has worked with partners in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Virginia in order to hold outreach session and training seminars for over 400 municipal officials, volunteers, and other professionals to provide up-to-date education on geospatial technologies and practices.
“We compile data on an online clearinghouse and show people how to use it effectively,” said Bonynge. “We offer conferences and workshops, and I have a GPS unit that allows people to run around and use the equipment.”
“Another interesting project was we have is this really awesome statewide elevation data set,” he added. "It tells you where the land is in the state, its texture, and how old it is. This is really exciting work we are getting involved with here.”
For every USDA dollar provided, the RREA program has matched with state, municipal, and private funding, approximately $12 million, and has thrived through the University’s Environmental Data Center, founded in 1986. As of 2011, the Center’s online database of geospatial data for Rhode Island has seen 395,158 total downloads.
Alyson McCann, Coordinator for the University’s Water Quality program, also outlined the work that URI has supported over the years, namely protection and awareness of private wells as drinking water sources.
“I want to emphasis the leadership role that URI has played in the National Water Quality program,” said McCann. “One of the areas of focus I work on is protection of drinking water sources, more specifically drinking water wells.”
“15 percent of the U.S. population depends on private wells for their drinking water, or 43 million Americans,” she added. “[That number includes] 10 percent of Rhode Islanders, or a little over 100,000, and those sources aren’t tested by the state drinking water program. Most of them are done by private well owners and it is mostly a voluntary effort.”
McCann spoke to the Water Quality’s programs reach throughout the state and regionally, and its responsibilities in testing and collecting data about water quality for drinking sources.
“People are very concerned about the protection and cleanliness of well drinking water, so we do work locally and regionally, such as with the Rhode Island Department of Health,” said McCann. “They have provided funding to the college for local education and outreach to private owners of drinking water wells.”
“Our primary objective is to regularly test water,” she added. “The Department of Health has developed a regular testing schedule which details bacteria and some minerals commonly occurring, and some industrial chemicals. We measure impacts, and we know that 50 percent of the people that come to us test their water [afterwards].”
A number of other research projects were discussed as well, including URI’s research on climate change and wastewater treatment systems. For more information about the environmental initiatives occurring at URI through USDA support, visit www.uri.edu.