Issue Date: September 14, 2015
Citizen Scientists Gather Data To Influence Regulation Of Pollution
The boat crew huddles over the stagnant murk of Broad Creek on a hot summer morning. Plant debris and foam float on the second-most polluted tributary of Maryland’s South River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. The skiff slows and drops anchor. The captain does a quick check on her position then orders the crew to haul up the anchor and reposition the boat.
The craft is 8 feet from the spot where the volunteers have been taking water quality measurements for years. The sampling protocols are clear: The boat must anchor in that same spot, nowhere else.
The team of staff scientists and volunteers know that to gather high-quality information on the water column, being spot-on with their GPS coordinates for this location in the creek is essential to maintain the trust of state agencies that accept their data.
Broad Creek is polluted with high levels of ammonia and bacteria and has low concentrations of dissolved oxygen in summer. These conditions need to be addressed by state conservation managers to improve water quality as the South River Federation (SRF) pursues restoration work in the creek.
Many environmental conservation groups across the U.S. field what they call “stream teams” or “creek geeks.” They have staff members trained in the chemical sciences accompany community volunteers to explore waterbodies as part of their environmental education programs.
But just south of the historic port city of Annapolis, Md., SRF’s citizen science program has taken such efforts to a new level. This effort has the potential to lead to regulations that slash pollution by supplying the state government with water quality data.
With the oversight of professional scientists, the volunteers have collected precise and consistent data for eight years, which includes water samples taken before, during, and after storms.
The captain’s decision to reposition the skiff is evidence of this, as precise GPS coordinates guide each monitoring effort they make, says Chris Gordon, who lives near the South River and has volunteered with SRF for five years. The foundation calls him when weather conditions are too rough for other citizen scientists. “Chris and the other volunteers are integral to our program,” says SRF Executive Director Kate Fritz.
Because SRF emphasizes training and quality control, the reliability and validity of its chemical and physical parameters data are considered robust. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), a regulatory agency, uses SRF’s data as it prepares reports about the level of pollution in water bodies in the state.
At each monitoring station, SRF volunteers lower a Hydrolab DS5 probe to collect information on pH levels, conductivity, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and blue-green algae populations at different depths. The measurements of the blue-green algae are taken as early warnings of the possible formation of algal blooms—red, orange, and other colors—what Fritz calls “a veritable rainbow of nastiness.”
SRF shelled out $15,000 for the Hydrolab instrument, a significant chunk of money for a local environmental group with seven paid staff members. But the instrument has a precision and reliability that buttresses others’ confidence in the water quality data the organization collects.
In their fieldwork, citizen scientists often use a mix of old and new technology. Many water quality monitoring teams use both high-tech sensors and a simple Secchi disk, 8 inches in diameter, its quarters painted alternately black and white. The disk, an instrument used to measure water clarity for more than a century, is lowered off the shady side of a boat into the water until the two colors aren’t distinguishable to the observer’s eye. Data collectors then measure the depth at which the disk’s colors disappear. This provides data about turbidity, which includes sediment suspended in the water.
Chesapeake Bay restoration experts have set a goal of cleaning up the estuary and its tributaries so they have clarity to 6 feet—the optimal depth below the surface at which sea grass can absorb sunlight and provide habitat for water-filtering oysters to nestle in.
In the early 2000s, SRF mobilized volunteers to conduct water monitoring off docks adjoining their private property along the South River. Diana Muller, a chemist who had worked for Old Dominion University and SGS Testing & Control Services, served as the South Riverkeeper at the time. She found that the dock sampling effort generated data with too many outliers and discrepancies. She led the switch to monitor the water from a skiff at multiple sites on the South River.
SRF itself was created in 1999 by a loose-knit group of concerned residents watching the health of the river deteriorate. They banded together to form a Riverkeeper organization, which is part of the broader Waterkeeper Alliance network—a coalition of local environmental groups that keep an eye on fish kills, water quality, compliance with permits that limit soil erosion and runoff from construction sites, and other immediate local concerns.
After years of careful examination and review of SRF’s data collection, scientists at MDE and its sister state agency, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), have come to trust the volunteer-collected data. The environmental group files rigorous data quality plans with environmental regulators, coordinates scientific protocols with the natural resources agency during field visits, and provides training to volunteers. In doing so, SRF expands the scientific evidence available to natural resource managers on the Chesapeake Bay’s South River, according to state officials.
Maryland agencies have only one water quality monitoring location on the South River’s 10 square miles of surface. SRF contributes water quality data on more than 21 spots on the tidal river and its tributaries. The group gathers, checks, and archives chemical and physical information collected during the past 10 years.
Gordon, the SRF citizen scientist, says, “The trained volunteers free up science staff from field collection duties to analyze data trends, craft reports, catch outliers, and provide more quality control.”
Volunteer Coordinator Nancy Merrill says SRF is first concerned with “stopping the bleeding” of pressing environmental concerns such as fish kills on the river. But the group maintains that longer-range monitoring programs strengthen regulators’ rationale for addressing long-standing concerns about nutrients and storm water that run into the South River from its watershed.
The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus enter the bay and its tributaries mainly via sewage plants discharging treated water and fertilizer runoff from farm fields. These nutrients trigger the growth of algae that eventually die and decompose, leading to the formation of summertime “dead zones” of low oxygen where fish and other marine life cannot live.
SRF has found that dead zones are not just limited to the deep middle of the Chesapeake Bay where oceangoing containerships ply in and out of the Port of Baltimore. They can be found in shallower areas as well.
SRF’s data are unprecedented in quality and quantity for a small, local organization and provides for more accurate and evidence-based environmental and public health decisions, state scientists say. “The partnership with SRF works because the data are just like the information our state DNR collects,” says Matt Stover with MDE.
Back on Broad Creek, SRF’s Merrill is satisfied that the large skiff is on the correct GPS location. Next, citizen scientists drop the Hydrolab instrument with five sensors over the side into Broad Creek. Gordon says that after a rain, the water turns brown and oil, sediment, and trash wash down from the parking lots upstream of the waterway.
Citizen scientists and college-student interns gather data at various depths and record meteorological information at each site. This combination of high- and low-tech data collection is a mark of many citizen science group efforts and can help explain outliers or questionable data. “Sometimes the wind on a particular day combined with tidal flows can help us piece together unusual readings,” says intern Rachel Denby, an environmental science major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, who volunteered with SRF this summer.
MDE’s Stover underscores that volunteerism of this kind can slash pollution. “Our partnership with SRF and other groups that use volunteers to collect water quality information allows us to receive additional data and advance our goals.” Information MDE receives—which also comes from academics, nongovernmental organizations, environmental groups, municipalities, and other nontraditional partners—amounts to a huge volume of data that, when combined, saves the agency time, effort, and resources, he says.
In particular, the SRF data helped the department compile a report in 2014 that is required by the Clean Water Act. The report examines what are called impairments—levels of pollution—in the state’s waterways and water bodies. The report will be used by regulators as they consider potential actions that may be needed to address this pollution.
“We require rigorous methods and review, including quality-control plans that detail who, what, when, why, and how data are gathered,” Stover says. Maryland DNR’s Sherm Garrison confirms this and regularly carries out “field audits” with SRF and other citizen scientists to ensure consistent scientific protocols are followed. “SRF uses the same instruments we do,” he says. The state offers assistance in instances when volunteers collect “outlier data,” such as when a dissolved oxygen sensor gives an unusual reading—for example, an irrational 105%—so that this sort of information is treated consistently, he says.
One key regulatory development that has attracted controversy and litigation has been setting caps on the amount of various pollutants tolerated in water bodies. Regulators call them total maximum daily loads or TMDLs.
After state and federal environmental agencies prevailed in a court challenge brought by the agricultural sector over the TMDLs, the agencies set Chesapeake Bay watershed limits of 185.9 million lb of nitrogen, 12.5 million lb of phosphorus, and 6.45 billion lb of sediment per year. These values represent a 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus, and 20% reduction in sediment compared with 2009 levels. According to MDE spokesman Jay Apperson, “The Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership anticipates using SRF’s and other groups’ data to a greater degree in the future to help refine TMDL analyses.” The TMDLs are effective now, and implementation planning is ongoing.
“Access to a lot of high-quality data” helps the state promote these protections, Stover of MDE says. “Some stakeholders were surprised we wanted to work with the South River Federation, but it’s been a very positive experience from our vantage point.”
Although more expensive monitoring of individual chemical contaminants and hydrocarbons is beyond the capability of many volunteer groups and even state agencies, such data would also be valuable to regulators, Stover says.
Back on the skiff in the South River, SRF volunteers steer around the river’s nooks and crannies. Come rain or snow or sunshine, they can be found anchoring at precisely the same spots and collecting information that Maryland regulators value.
Read More: Citizen Science Faces Pushback
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