East Lyme - Parked on Colony Road near a bridge over Latimer Brook, Don Danila opened the hatch of his Subaru Outback to reach for rubber boots and a handheld water quality meter, the suburban neighborhood around him quiet and seemingly empty of life on this weekday morning.
A few moments later, standing in the middle of a gently flowing section of the brook, meter in hand, he called to his assistant, fellow East Lyme resident and Niantic River Watershed Committee volunteer Marvin Schutt.
"Marvin, you all set?"
"All set," Schutt replied, clipboard and pencil in hand.
"The water temperature is 12.5 degrees (Celsius). The dissolved oxygen is 7.5. The conductivity is 78.0. The pH is 6.70," Danila said, as Schutt recorded the numbers on a chart. "And my left boot leaks. Ooh, it's cold."
Danila, a retired scientist from the Millstone Power Station environmental lab, then filled a small plastic bottle, labeled with a "2," with water from the stream.
Tuesday morning, the pair would repeat these steps at nine different spots along Latimer Brook and Cranberry Meadow Brook, a smaller stream that flows into it. Latimer is one of the main tributaries of the Niantic River, some 5 or 6 miles from the farthest of the nine measuring stations.
Monthly since April, Schutt and Danila have been following this routine, on rainy days and sunny ones, in a kind of environmental sleuthing effort they hope will help pinpoint the sources of and possible solutions to the pollution plaguing the Niantic River.
"We'll keep doing this as long as we can keep up with it," Danila said. "We want to see how the results change over time. But we can't draw any conclusions yet."
A tidal estuary and important recreational and natural resource for East Lyme and Waterford, the Niantic River is also a troubled waterway, labeled "impaired" by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. High levels of nitrogen in the river, among other pollutants, contribute to algae blooms and excessive seaweed growth that diminish its value as a habitat for shellfish and other marine life and for recreation, according to a 2012 DEEP report on the state's waterways.
Possible polluters include lawn fertilizers, failing septic systems in the remaining areas without sewers around the river, as well as runoff from roads, residential development, agricultural fields and horse and livestock manure.
Four years ago, the Niantic River Watershed Committee was formed to address the river's pollution problems. Over that time, about $70,000 in Environmental Protection Agency grants administered by DEEP and provided to the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District have funded the project, paying for a watershed coordinator and program expenses.
The project brings together representatives of the four towns in the 31-square-mile watershed - East Lyme, Waterford, Salem and Montville - to locate the pollution sources, educate the public about the problems and create a plan to improve the quality of the river.
That's where the efforts of volunteers like Danila and Schutt, who is vice chairman of the watershed committee, come in. Before a plan of correction can be written, baseline water quality data must be collected, compiled and analyzed.
"We wanted to focus on Latimer Brook because it's the largest of the three main tributaries to the Niantic River," watershed coordinator Judy Rondeau said. "We're trying to identify what we call 'hot spots,' and then we can start looking around the neighborhoods to find out what may be contributing."
Rondeau said that even if the two brooks are found to be only a minor source of nitrogen, the effort will be worthwhile. Steps taken to reduce even those small amounts ultimately would help the river, she said. In addition, the committee would then know to focus attention on the roads and neighborhoods immediately surrounding the river rather than the outlying areas around the brooks.
In addition to the water quality monitoring, volunteers have also been conducting "rapid bioassessments," in which insects are collected from the streams and identified. Different species, Danila explained, indicate whether the water is of high, moderate or poor quality. The results were generally positive.
"We got a lot of organisms of the most desirable classifications," he said.
After the on-site measurements are collected, Danila heads home to test the nine water samples, using the same skills and equipment he employs in his part-time environmental consulting business. Since he began the monitoring, the highest nitrogen levels were detected in two spots, at a location on Latimer Brook near Flanders Four Corners, and on Cranberry Meadow Brook near the intersection of Route 161 and Walnut Hill Road.
Tuesday morning, though, none of the nine sites recorded any nitrogen. It's a result he has never seen before, and one that piques his curiosity to keep collecting data.
"Today was a complete surprise," Danila said.