Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Networks at the Heart of Citizen Science Movement

By on March 19, 2018

Students with the Youth Forest Monitoring Program (YFMP) use a survey scope to measure the topography of a stream near Webb Lake in the Scapegoat Wilderness on the Helena National Forest northwest of Lincoln, Mont. (Credit: U.S. Forest Service photo by Brandan W. Schulze, By Forest Service Northern Region from Missoula, MT, USA (Stream Monitoring - YFMP) [CC BY 2.0])

Lately, citizen science initiatives have been getting noticed by laypeople and mainstream media outlets. As everyday people become aware of ways they can get involved in actual scientific research, more of them are doing so—especially teachers and parents working with children. But this citizen science wave isn’t actually a new thing. It has been growing outward from its core in volunteer water quality monitoring networks for years.

Around the country, volunteers have been quietly monitoring the water quality in lakes, streams, rivers, marshes, and other surface waterways for decades. These highly successful programs have been supporting better water quality in communities across America, and in doing so have also formed the heart of the modern citizen science movement.

The University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch

Linda Green, who serves as the Director of the University of Rhode Island Watershed Watch Program, spoke to EM about volunteer water quality monitoring programs and the USA Volunteer Water Monitoring Network. Green has been involved in volunteer water quality monitoring for over 30 years, and the URI Watershed Watch recently celebrated its 30th anniversary as well.

“The volunteer monitoring collaborative at the USA volunteer monitoring website was originally funded by a grant from the US Department of Agriculture,” Green explains. “We had three 4-year grants that we extended, so that funded our program nationally from 2002 to 2014. In doing that we developed a series of factsheet learning modules for groups who wanted to get started, with our goal being to expand and ensure that new groups didn’t have to reinvent the wheel when it came to volunteer monitoring. Along with my two main colleagues in the program, Elizabeth Herron here at the University of Rhode Island, and Kristine Stepenuck at the University of Vermont, we were the main collaborators on this program. In fact, Dr. Herron and Dr. Stepenuck wrote the factsheets that are still the most popular output from that project. We try to check the links and update them every year or so.”

Over time the number of programs across the United States has grown, and today there are approximately 350 standalone programs, or what Green, Stepenuck, and their colleagues call parent volunteer water monitoring programs. There are an additional 1,300 to 1,600 smaller programs affiliated with some of those parent programs.


Students collect and test water samples from a small stream as part of a corps of volunteer water quality monitors in the state of Iowa. (Credit: Tim McCabe / Photo courtesy of: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.)

“It’s—no pun intended—a very fluid number, because nobody’s really keeping track,” remarks Green. “So that’s the background on the volunteer water quality monitoring movement itself.”

In fact, monitoring the quality of the many waterways across the country would be an impossible task without a massive group of volunteers. Even in a small state like Rhode Island there is a tremendous amount of water.

“In the URI Watershed Watch program that I run we have about 350 volunteers monitoring about 250 sites,” details Green. “About one-third of them are lakes and ponds, one-third are rivers and streams, and the remaining one-third are salt or estuary sites.”

And while the numbers of volunteers are high across the country, what water quality volunteers monitor varies widely from place to place. Of the estimated 100,000 annual volunteers, individual programs might have anywhere from 2 to 10,000 volunteers. Every program is doing something slightly different, from simple water sampling to detailed monitoring of macro invertebrates.

“Some of the programs are very simple, others are quite complex,” Green describes. “Some of them focus on using monitoring kits. At URI Watershed Watch volunteers combine field monitoring and sampling, and we analyze the data here, we have a state-certified lab that we run.”

Volunteer water quality monitoring and citizen science

Although there is no source of oversight for the entire field, there is a National Water Quality Monitoring Council that has been providing guidance and support to volunteers and scientists alike since 1988. Green describes the early years of the program, during which the EPA played an important role, sponsoring the first national monitoring workshop and publishing very detailed guides for volunteers for lake monitoring, stream monitoring, and estuary monitoring quality assurance project plans—all of which were instrumental in helping build volunteer monitoring programs across the country.

“I was the original volunteer monitoring representative to the National Water Quality Monitoring Council, and as I like to say, I served 10 years of a four year term,” quips Green. “There’s still a volunteer monitoring rep, and an active group involved. When I was on the council I worked toward trying to merge the EPA volunteer monitoring and the WQ conferences so that we had a mix of professionals and volunteer coordinators at both conferences so everybody could learn from each other. The national water quality conference is now held basically every other year and there’s a very vibrant volunteer monitoring component to that conference.”

One thing you can see from looking at various water quality volunteer monitoring programs is that there is a broad range of how much they do and an array of techniques they use. Some provide extensive training, and even include hurdles for volunteers such as a capstone project.

“It all depends on what the goals of the programs are, and in some cases, some of the hoops they have to jump through to get their data accepted and used,” remarks Green. “Historically, getting state agencies to accept and use the data from volunteer water monitoring programs has been a problem; they seem to throw out more roadblocks in some cases than EPA and some of the federal agencies. So that’s kind of interesting.”


35 Center High School Students, Blue River Watershed Association volunteers and EPA scientists conduct water monitoring and pick up trash at Indian Creek in Kansas City, Missouri on October 7, 2011. October is Children’s Health Month, when EPA brings awareness to environmental issues such as watershed health, which is important to providing clean, safe water where Americans live, work and play. (USEPA Photo by Toni Castro)

While there is some sentiment that volunteers can’t monitor for water quality as well as the professionals can, according to Green there is research that seems to prove otherwise. In many states this bias against volunteer data is slowly being overcome as more rigorous standards for volunteer training and “credible data” programs are put into place. Another important benefit of the volunteer programs: a fostering of stewardship attitudes in participants toward maintaining cleaner water. Dr. Kristine Stepenuck, an assistant professor of watershed science at the University of Vermont, has conducted some research on the success and outcomes of volunteer water quality monitoring programs.

“One study compared new volunteer monitors to experienced ones,” details Dr. Stepenuck. “We found a significant difference between the civic engagement of the experienced volunteers (with only an average of 20 months experience) and the new volunteers. The experienced folks engaged in personal research about water issues, talked to neighbors and others about water and envl issues, and attended public meetings more often than new volunteers.”

Dr. Stepenuck has also found that volunteer water quality monitoring networks have real impacts on policy and management decisions.

“Programs reported a variety of outcomes,” explains Dr. Stepenuck. “These included collecting data that were used to protect or restore waterbodies, to influence management decisions (such as stopping a highway construction project due to turbid waters downstream of it, or to increase the time UV light is exposed to wastewater effluent due to bacteria levels downstream of the outfall pipe indicating bacterial contamination), to change the way natural resource management organizations do their work (for example, where the professionals were monitoring changed, or the methods they were using changed), and the civic engagement of the volunteers.”

Meanwhile, the programs themselves are relatively low-cost, but not free—and this, too, can become a point of contention.

“The volunteer programs are cost effective, not cost free, and that’s been a challenge,” Green explains. “For the Watershed Watch program we charge an annual fee for each site. For that we provide all the equipment, supplies, training, analytical work, and the graphing of the data. That’s a lot on our end, and consultants will look at that and say, that’s nothing, that per site fee—but a town council or a watershed organization might say, wow, that’s really expensive. So it’s a delicate balance.”

Of course, when volunteers complete some of the work, that saves money too.

“The program I used to coordinate, Wisconsin’s Water Action Volunteers, gave responsibility to volunteers to collect water samples to be analyzed for phosphorus,” states Dr. Stepenuck. “Staff would collect the samples if volunteers could not, but they are freed up to do other things because volunteers can and do collect the needed data on the required timeline.”

Meanwhile, citizen science initiatives are popping up across the nation, and new apps, websites, and other tools are making it easier for everyday people to “do” science. But it was the volunteer water quality monitoring networks that planted the seed for the movement—a seed based on issues of local importance.

“I think that our water monitoring programs are in some ways the nucleus, the basis from which the citizen science programs were able to spring from,” muses Green. “Many of the citizen science programs are seeking to answer big national questions, whether they’re about butterflies or light pollution, in contrast to many of the water monitoring programs which spring from a more local need.”

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