Chesapeake Quarterly
A Citizen Scientist on the Corsica River
Sandy Simpson by Erica Goldman
departing from the dock of Myron Richardson by Erica Goldman
data collection by Erica Goldman
At the first of five sampling stations, Sandy Simpson, a Corsica River Conservancy volunteer, prepares a collection bottle. Conservancy volunteers offer boats and dock access for monitoring trips (top). Today's trip departed from the dock of Myron Richardson, who coordinates the water quality monitoring program (middle). Simpson and other volunteers follow a data collection protocol certified by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (bottom). Credit: Erica Goldman

THE SMALL BOAT ROCKS GENTLY as Sandy Simpson fits a glass sample bottle into a metal buckle at the end of a long wooden pole. She unseals the cap and lifts the pole over the side of the boat as it idles along the widest part of the Corsica River. Leaning down, she swipes the bottle through the water, making sure that the sample comes from below the surface.

On the distant shore, student sailors wrestle with the rigging of small boats in the heavy air. It's hot when the boat's not moving, and the sun is strong. Simpson wears a cloth bandana to keep her hair off her face in the summer heat.

This week, on this boat, she's first mate, working with captain Ben Heilman and crew Jeff Smith, all of them volunteer water quality monitors from the Corsica River Conservancy (CRC). Every Wednesday, from May to October, a different set of citizen scientists heads out at 11:00 am sharp to sample the water. They follow a rigorous protocol, certified by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, that allows their data to be included in the agency's Eyes on the Bay database. To make these trips possible, different volunteers commit their personal boats to the outing each week. In six summers, the water quality monitors from the Corsica River Conservancy missed only one day — this was due to an instrument malfunction.

Simpson swings the collection bottle up to the surface and screws the cap back on, careful not to touch the inside of the rim. Any contamination might confound the measurements. Next, she drops overboard the probe of a device called a CTD meter, which measures conductivity, temperature, and depth. She submerges it just beneath the surface, waiting for the readings to stabilize.

Simpson calls out, "pH 8.35, temperature 29°C," and Heilman jots this down on the data record sheet.

Simpson has volunteered with the Corsica River Conservancy for four years, ever since she moved to the Eastern Shore. Like most members, she's a retiree — in her case, a retired nurse. But she's always identified herself as an environmentalist, ever since she majored in biology "eons ago."

Since then Simpson's lived in 16 different places — from northern Michigan to California, Arizona to New Jersey. Her ex-husband was in the military service, flying B52s in northern Michigan during the Cold War. In every place she's lived, she's sought out ways to connect with the environment.

"I've enjoyed just about every area that I've ever lived in. There's always something new to experience, both the culture and the environment," she says. "I think you need to pay attention. You need to learn about the area that you are in and how you can keep it safe."

When she moved to Centreville to be closer to family, volunteering with the Corsica River Conservancy felt like a natural fit. She's already been out once before this summer to collect water samples, and she'll probably go out at least once more. She also helps with the local rain garden program run by the Corsica River Conservancy and with outreach at Canard Elementary School. Reaching the kids really strikes a cord with Simpson. It is with the kids, she says, that environmentalism can have its deepest reach.

"The kids are the ones who are going to be making a change in the future," she says. "I've seen their awareness growing."

After Simpson finishes taking water samples and CTD measurements from all five stations, Captain Heilman turns the boat around. Simpson busies herself filling out forms and preparing the cooler that holds the water samples.

When she returns to shore, Simpson will drop the samples off at Centreville Health Department. From there, a courier will bring them to Baltimore to be analyzed for nutrient and bacteria levels at the state of Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The wind picks up as the boat accelerates. Simpson works quickly but calmly. For the samples to be valid she has to drop them off by 1:00 pm. It's already close to noon.

The volunteers speed toward shore.

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