How COVID-19 Is Threatening Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring – and What We’re Doing About It

Zach Moss, Save Our Streams Coordinator
Save Our Streams online training

They say change is the only constant, and the events of this year have certainly shown the truth in that axiom. It seems nearly every aspect of daily life has been affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. For us at the Izaak Walton League, this includes water quality monitoring by our community of volunteers as well as training programs for new members of our nationwide stream team. How has Save Our Streams adapted, and what does the future of volunteer water quality monitoring look like?

At the beginning of 2020, Save Our Streams was organizing a busy slate of trainings for future volunteer stream monitors, and current stream monitors were gearing up to get out in the field. Unfortunately, the onset of the pandemic perfectly coincided with the beginning of training and monitoring season. A packed schedule of training workshops turned into an empty calendar as restrictions on public gatherings went into effect across the country. Experienced volunteers couldn’t safely assemble with their teammates and check on their local streams. For the Izaak Walton League’s Clean Water Program, the race was on to adapt to unprecedented conditions and ensure that our important water quality work would be able to continue.

And adapt we did: Within weeks, we transformed traditional Save Our Streams training into a new online program. Now, anyone interested in becoming a volunteer water monitor can learn about common threats to water quality in America, study up on aquatic macroinvertebrates (“stream bugs”), and demonstrate their new knowledge by passing a macroinvertebrate identification exam – all from home and at their own convenience.

The new online training program is free, easy to fit into any schedule, and available everywhere – and it comes with no commitment. Plus, because it’s based on our tried-and-tested traditional training, we know it works: People who complete the program will be fully equipped to gather accurate data, assess the health of their local streams, and take action on problems they find.

Our classroom trainings – and the new digital equivalent – are proven effective, but nothing beats real-world experience for preparing volunteers to independently monitor their adopted streams. That’s why the final step of the Save Our Streams training program has always been a trip to a stream, where new volunteers practice finding, sorting, and counting stream bugs under the guidance of an experienced trainer. We hope that in the near future we’ll be able to provide this valuable experience for volunteers who have begun their training online – but if that isn’t possible, we’re committed to offering the best possible alternative for trainees, to allow them to become certified stream monitors with the most confidence and the least delay.

Soon, we’ll be making the new online trainings even better. We’ll add videos showing real monitors at work in the field, to help new volunteers learn the ropes. We’ll offer more live webinars, so trainees can learn the key information and skills they’ll need while also enjoying all the benefits of interacting with a teacher and with other volunteers. And we’re exploring options for creating a virtual version of the capstone experience in our traditional training: the visit to a stream to practice collecting and identifying real stream bugs.

Knowing how important camaraderie and connection are for our community of volunteer water monitors, we’re also working hard to make sure new and veteran volunteers alike have opportunities to take action for clean water and to enjoy the company of other conservation champions while we’re not able to be physically together. Now anyone – whether they’re involved with Save Our Streams or not – can enjoy new resources including our Clean Water Webinars, our roundup of five things you can do for clean water while socially distancing, and our collection of conservation-focused activities for kids.

When people are able to gather again to monitor water quality together, it will likely look a little different than it used to. It will require more advance planning; we’ll probably do it in smaller groups; and we might have to wear masks.

But life, and volunteer water quality monitoring, will go on. Whatever happens, two things are for sure: The world will continue to change… and the Izaak Walton League will be ready.

Begin your online training now