League's Water Monitoring Programs Boost Volunteer Optimism

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Jessica Driver - credit IWLA

For decades, the Izaak Walton League’s clean water programs have produced widespread action, engagement and cleaner water. Our volunteer water monitors say there are additional benefits: the League’s volunteer science programs help to foster hope and confidence in the participants’ ability to tackle the challenges of water pollution.

That benefit was confirmed in a recent survey conducted by the League of volunteer water monitors across the county. In October, the League asked participants about their experience. Of the 54 volunteers who responded, the vast majority said as a result of their experience, they have greater optimism.

Asked whether their experience has made them more or less optimistic that volunteers can make a difference in improving water quality, 87 percent said more optimistic (31 percent said “much more,” 56 percent said “somewhat more”).

Asked whether their experience has made them more or less optimistic about the role of volunteer science in raising public awareness about water quality, 85 percent said more optimistic (30 percent said “much more optimistic”).

The League’s primary water monitoring programs are Save Our Streams, created in 1969, Salt Watch (2018) and Nitrate Watch (2023).

Volunteers describe their experiences

Kevin Misener is a long-time volunteer in North Potomac, Maryland, who has tested waterways using virtually all of the League monitoring programs. He says the people he meets while testing water are interested and concerned about the results, whether that’s a chloride reading or macroinvertebrates he has identified in the stream.

He says, “If we were just collecting data to squirrel away, it wouldn’t serve any purpose. But instead we can raise awareness about very specific concerns and very actionable responses that regular people can do to help—things like reducing their own road salt use or advocating for better stormwater controls around our watersheds.”

Misener, who focuses most of his monitoring on Seneca Creek in Montgomery County, Maryland, encourages others to take part in the process, and he writes articles for local publications and blogs.

There’s a flip side to checking waterways for pollution, Misener says. “Monitoring data also allows groups like Seneca Creek Watershed Partners to point to portions of our watershed that have been protected and show off the low salt levels, low nitrate levels and corresponding excellent habitat and biotic index scores as examples of why we encourage environmental preservation and stewardship.”

Water monitoring provides a "frontline defense in identifying contaminants and toxins entering our water supply."Art Foltz

Art Foltz, from Fredericksburg, Virginia, monitors water in Mine Run using Save Our Streams, Nitrate Watch and Salt Watch. That creek feeds into Mott’s Reservoir, which serves as a water supply for the City of Fredericksburg.

He believes monitoring provides a “frontline defense in identifying contaminants and toxins entering our water supply. Biannual sampling of benthic macroinvertebrates coupled with sodium chloride and nitrate checks of our streams is an excellent quantitative process that measures the health of our water... I feel confident that the water entering the city reservoir from the stream I monitor is free of harmful contaminants.”

Foltz, member of the League’s Fredericksburg- Rappahannock Chapter, adds Save Our Streams is also interesting and fun. “When you tell people about the process, they want to help and bring their children out to help.”

Prepared to take action

Most of the volunteers (65 percent) said they feel equipped to take action if their monitoring exposes problems with water quality; 35 percent said they don’t feel equipped.

And many do take action.

“Volunteer monitors aren’t just filling data gaps, they are often a first line of defense when it comes to diagnosing the water quality problems that harm our environmental and public health across the country,” says Samantha Puckett (Briggs), Clean Water Program Director at the Izaak Walton League.

“Now, the League is working to leverage these efforts, communicate results and equip monitors with the tools they need to become positive changemakers in their communities.”

"Now, the League is working to leverage these efforts, communicate results and equip monitors with the tools they need to become positive changemakers in their communities."Sam Puckett (Briggs)

Linda May Fitzgerald, who monitors water in eastern Iowa, contacts legislators and has had letters to the editor published about water quality. One Connecticut volunteer who collects water data for the EPA and the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said he has used that data from Salt Watch and Nitrate Watch when discussing water quality with other organizations.

Ken Yonek in Washington County, Pennsylvania, worked in the chemical industry for many years, so data collection is second nature to him. He monitors several streams including Catfish Run, which empties into the Piney Forks branch of Peters Creek.

He was surprised to find Catfish Run had chloride readings at or above 230 ppm (a toxic level for chronic exposure for aquatic life) early in the winter before substantial salt application in the area. The readings were much higher than Piney Forks or Peters Creek, which drain much larger areas. Yonek suspects that the high readings are “the effect of some groundwater contamination into Catfish Run or some consistent, accidental discharge from waste water lines or some other source.

“We’ll continue gathering data and ultimately, present this to both park and municipal authorities.”

Several respondents reported that when they have alerted local agencies about a water problem, they did not get a satisfying response. Those who did not feel prepared to take action said more guidelines about taking action would be welcome. And several respondents said their water tests have not revealed bad water quality so they haven’t needed to take any action yet.

Local data conveys local credibility

As a result of their experience, 92 percent of respondents said they were more likely to recommend volunteer science programs like the League’s to friends and family (65 percent said “much more likely,” 27 percent said somewhat more).

Allen Baker, who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, believes that “results from citizen scientists carry more weight with local folks than something disseminated by some far-off government agency. The fact that my results come from that local stream in that local park where you walk the trail or go to see a Little League game makes it more personal.

“If my monitoring results show someone a facet of water quality they had never considered, such as winter salt usage, they might be prompted to alter their personal habits and in turn make a difference.” Baker is a member of the Rockingham-Harrisonburg (Virginia) Chapter of the League.

Girl Scout event - credit IWLAVolunteer science also boosts the confidence of youth. The League presented water monitoring information at this Girl Scout meeting in Des Moines, Iowa.

Studies underscore the benefits of volunteer science

Published research backs up the League’s survey findings that suggest that being active in these water monitoring programs increases confidence and optimism about the ability to improve the health of the environment.

A 2018 study found that community science can empower participants by providing an avenue into “civic participation and involving people in policy-relevant debates and decision-making processes,” (Biological Conservation, September 2018, Tabea Turrini, Daniel Dorler, Richter, Heigl, Bonn).

A paper focused on the impact of volunteer science on youth concluded that programs that include rigorous data collection, sharing findings with external audiences and examination of complex environmental systems “can foster youth participation in current conservation actions, and build their capacity for future conservation actions,” (Biological Conservation, April 2017, Ballard, Dixon and Harris).

And a recent assessment of the Girl Scouts’ “Think Like a Citizen Scientist” activity in the SciStarter program found that in addition to science knowledge and skills, this activity resulted in “development of science confidence and identity, and the adoption of civic action and advocacy behaviors” (Environmental Education Research, July 2023, Smith, Cooper, Busch et al).

Volunteers stir a ripple effect

Jessica Driver, who lives in Java, Virginia, says she monitors an unnamed tributary that empties into Sandy Creek and the Dan River in Danville. She has used Salt Watch, Creek Critters, Nitrate Watch and Save Our Streams programs, which have made her “somewhat more optimistic” about the power of volunteer science. She works with the Dan River Basin Association to “take the knowledge of my stream health and concerns to the public at outreach events.

“We bring macro-invertebrates and games to events and tell people about how they can help their local basin. We also pick up trash when we are monitoring, and the last time we were out, a gentleman on a 4-wheeler was doing the same. He said he had watched us for years, every Sunday cleaning up and wanted to help! Our impact may be small, but it has definitely helped those around us realize the value of clean water.”

Survey Method: A Snapshot of the League's Water Monitors

An email survey of water monitor volunteers was conducted in October and November 2023. Of the 54 volunteers who responded to the survey, all had participated in at least one of the League’s programs, which include Salt Watch, Save Our Streams (including the Virginia SOS and chemical monitoring programs), Nitrate Watch, Creek Critters and Stream Selfie.

Most of the respondents (69 percent) are boomers (59 or older). Eleven percent are Generation X and 15 percent are millennials. Some of the volunteers also participate in monitoring not affiliated with the League, such as WiseH2O, a Trout Unlimited program, and monitoring programs run by state agencies.

Top photo: At public outreach events, Jessica Driver, right, shares her knowledge and concerns about stream health in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Credit: IWLA.