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New Technology Helps Volunteer Scientists Protect Clean Water

Samantha Briggs
Clean Water Hub - credit IWLA

There is no doubt that times are still changing, especially when it comes to technology. As a millennial, I have seen quite the transition for technology in my lifetime.

MAKING THE SWITCH: COMMUNITY SCIENCE IS HERE TO STAY

You may have noticed the League transitioning away from "citizen science" to terms like "community science" and "volunteer monitoring." These terms are becoming accepted in the water quality monitoring field as more inclusive alternatives to "citizen science."

I remember the days of dial-up internet and instant messaging my friends via AOL. Myspace took hold during my middle school years, to be replaced by Facebook when I was in high school. My personal cell phones evolved from simple brick phones that only called and texted to today’s iPhone that has me connected to the internet, email and social media at any moment of the day.

With a smartphone, we can find information from all over the globe. If I want a recipe for baking rosemary bread, I can easily find hundreds of recipes on the internet. Or FaceTime my grandmother for her guidance. Our local governments are able to quickly and efficiently distribute information about community events, public health concerns and more.

Share Data to Drive Awareness and Action

At the Izaak Walton League, we want to ensure that volunteer scientists have the guidance and means to effectively share their data with their communities and governments. And we want to ensure volunteers' data is seen and used – especially if they detect a water quality problem needing attention.

We knew we needed an effective way to share the data that volunteer scientists were collecting from the Save Our Streams (SOS) program. We needed to create a platform where volunteers can share their data instantly, coordinate efforts and track water quality over time.

Also, we wanted a platform where the public could easily access water quality data – data that is collected and reported more frequently than data from local and state governments. However, with a nationwide scope, the League noticed that other volunteer groups were having the same problems as SOS. We all needed to better manage, publish and share our data, especially if we hoped to have that data available to the public.

From there, the Clean Water Hub came to fruition.

Sharing data between groups allows for more transparency so that we can begin filling data gaps and taking the steps needed to restore our streams to good health. Data sharing also encourages more connections and collaboration between partners and organizations. It allows for us to build on each other’s monitoring efforts rather than repeating what’s already been done.

Right now, the Clean Water Hub is equipped to capture all Save Our Streams chemical and biological monitoring data. Additionally, we upload Virginia Save Our Streams data and Creek Critters data captured through the free Creek Critters mobile app. Coming soon, we will be adding a bacteria monitoring protocol, as well as implementing user-friendly public-facing maps that will display chloride (Salt Watch), temperature and nitrate data in easy-to-understand graphics.

Tracking salt pollution on Muddy Branch - credit IWLAThese salt readings taken from Muddy Branch in Gaithersburg, Md., between September 2021 and April 2022 reveal that even in early fall before road salt was applied to streets, chloride levels were elevated – at 100 milligrams per liter or more (clean, freshwater streams have chloride levels less than 30 mg/L). Note the sharp spikes after snow in early January. Chloride levels in the creek remained at concerning levels for months following winter storms.

Tips for Sharing Your Results

When you collect volunteer water quality monitoring data, here are some tips and tricks to ensure you can effectively communicate your results:

  • Organize your data in a way where it is easy for you to spot trends. The Clean Water Hub is a great tool for this! Notice in the Muddy Branch tracking chart above that the volunteer who monitors this site has consistently measured for chloride over time. Note that chloride levels stayed elevated even at times when salt was not being applied to the roads and sidewalks.

  • Make sure your message is concise and clear so someone with no background in water quality can easily understand it. For example, for the chart above, my message wouldn’t be “chloride levels are elevated.” Instead, I would say something along the lines of “Road salt is polluting Muddy Branch year-round.”

  • Share photos! Whether it is a picture of your stream, a chart of your results or a photo of you monitoring, photos really grab the attention of those who see your post, letter or flyer. Sharing a photo of you doing the monitoring connects with readers.

  • Remember, the Izaak Walton League also has factsheet templates that will help you get the word out about your data! These templates are available in the Hub help center and include instructions on how to use them.

With a little bit of adaptation, tools like the Clean Water Hub and social media, and the dedication of our volunteers, our water quality data can reach much farther than it did in 1969 when Save Our Streams was launched. That is certainly something we should capitalize on.

If you have questions about the Clean Water Hub, Save Our Streams or other water monitoring programs, please email the Clean Water Program staff.


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Top photo: The Clean Water Hub includes sites from various monitoring groups across the country. Sites monitored within the last year are shown as purple and sites monitored more than a year ago are gray. There are over 100 organizations, including Izaak Walton League chapters, that are submitting data to the Clean Water Hub.