US Rivers Get a Boost from Citizen Science Projects

Haven Livingston
Monday, December 3, 2012

Rivers in the US have been under siege since the age of industrialization began. They’ve been dammed (the US is the second most dammed nation in the world, with 5,500 large dams), dewatered for large-scale agriculture, deforested and polluted. This wide scale destruction brings urgency to the need to understand the health of entire river systems in order to protect and rehabilitate them. The best way to gain this understanding is to measure the vital signs of a river through the whole watershed. But monitoring thousands of miles of river is a gargantuan task, one that could never be accomplished by government agencies alone.

Over the past decade, citizen scientists in the United States have increasingly played a critical role in large-scale data collection to benefit their rivers. From monitoring water quality and quantity, to species research and climate-change impacts, data collected by citizens is creating windows into the health of our waterways. One result is that more riparian systems are being preserved, protected and restored. A secondary result, which may prove to be even more valuable in the long term, is that citizens are connecting with their local landscapes and becoming better stewards of their own watersheds.

While often prompted by the need to meet national and state standards and occasionally funded by government grants, citizen science projects are most often put into action by citizens’ groups or environmental organizations. Here are a few examples from the US West.

Citizen SYRCL

The South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) in California’s Sierra foothills is a rural, grassroots campaign which formed in 1983 to defend the South Yuba River from proposed hydropower dams, and has since become a force for protecting and restoring the entire Yuba watershed. For more than a decade, SYRCL has trained and coordinated the work of more than 400 volunteers in various citizen science efforts. Volunteers conduct ongoing water quality monitoring along more than 200 miles of the river and its tributaries.

Plans to develop a monitoring program evolved from concerns community members had about the health of the river. The region had once been a hotbed for hydraulic mining, resulting in heavy metal and other pollutants entering the water and river sediments. The river also has multiple dams whose reservoirs have concentrated the toxic sediments behind them.

“People want to know that the water they swim in is clean and that the river is healthy,” said Gary Reedy, River Science Director at SYRCL. “They want to know the condition of the aquatic ecosystem in light of hydropower changing the flow, the legacy of toxic mining, and a variety of other potential impacts from land use.”

Jessica Hayes of The Nature Conservancy shows what it takes to do citizen science.
Jessica Hayes of The Nature Conservancy shows what it takes to do citizen science.
Photo by TNC

The willingness of concerned citizens to volunteer enabled development of a monthly monitoring program. The purpose of the program is to inform protection and restoration actions through the collection of quality data that can be used to better understand the river’s condition. Funding for initial program activities came from the federal Clean Water Act and the State Water Resources Control Board, but those funds are now reserved for the most heavily polluted waters of California, and the Yuba did not qualify. Citizens concerned for the Yuba were undeterred, and funded the program over the past six years mostly with private grants, donations, and membership dues, and a few government grants. Keeping costs down is paramount. SYRCL has partnered with the national AmeriCorps program to recruit, train and host a new member each year as the River Monitoring Coordinator.

The group’s water quality monitoring follows five parameters: dissolved oxygen, pH, water and air temperature, turbidity and conductivity. These are important because much of the biota living in a freshwater system is dependent on particular chemical and physical environments to survive. This includes temperature, which affects how much oxygen the water can hold and has an effect on chemical reactions such as those involving pH. Water also holds heat longer than air, so when rivers warm they will remain warmer for longer, reducing availability of oxygen for fish and other species. Turbidity and conductivity measure the suspended particulates (clarity of the water) and the speed at which the water conducts electricity (salt content), respectively.

Results are routinely compared to water quality objectives set by the state. Volunteers are prepared to collect water quality data with four hours of training and a chaperoned first site visit. All measurements can be made in the field with relatively inexpensive equipment except turbidity, in which a water sample is returned to the SYRCL office for measurement. As funding allows, water samples collected from various sites are sent offsite for analysis of various pollutants.

SYRCL has partnered with a state agency conducting a “Safe to Swim” study. SYRCL identifies sites at risk and collects samples, while the state conducts laboratory analysis. Volunteers also collect a variety of environmental observations at their site, including the presence of invasive species or unusual changes to the water, such as cloudiness or oil sheens. These observations have proven useful in conducting follow-up investigations and planning restoration projects. 

Water samples were originally tested for heavy metals, but this was largely ineffective compared to testing sediments. SYRCL has since partnered with institutions that can perform the more expensive tests. “Our citizen-based program is not suited to all types of monitoring and assessment, but having our program in place is proving valuable for developing partnerships that can perform targeted monitoring and analysis,” Reedy said.

When a section of river fails to meet the water quality objectives for an extended length of time, potential causes are scrutinized. Sites that repeatedly fall outside of acceptable levels may be listed as impaired under the national Clean Water Act, a classification that commits the state to formal assessment and the development of an action plan.  SYRCL’s data has contributed to several such listings. Most recently, the South Yuba River was listed as impaired by high water temperature. Future actions resulting from this listing are expected to improve the suitability of the river for recovering salmon by increasing stream flows downstream of dams, and improving riparian canopy. Data are being used as evidence for a need to change flow regimes when negotiating hydropower dam relicensing permits.

Scientific Adventures

Citizen science is not the perfect answer to all data collection needs in a watershed. Sometimes there is a need for information from locations that are accessible only by the most adventurous people. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is a liaison organization dedicated to improving the accessibility of scientific knowledge by building partnerships between outdoor enthusiasts and scientists. With their help, non-profit organization Rivers for Change connected with scientists seeking data from California rivers.

A program by Rivers for Change, “12 Rivers in 2012,” assessed a dozen key rivers in California from source to sea, giving scientists a rare opportunity to collect data from reaches of rivers that only skilled kayakers can access. The campaign also helped shed light on watersheds in their entirety, and build community connections.

In steep isolated canyons of the upper reaches of these rivers, expert kayakers were able to collect algae samples for scientist Mike Deas, who is developing an algae bank that can provide important information about climate change. In the San Francisco bay area, kayakers escorted and assisted botanists in a successful search for rare native plants in areas not accessible by land.

Time constraints, equipment size and the level of scientific expertise in a group of adventurers are the greatest considerations when pairing research with expeditions. When the right match is found between scientists and adventurers, the results can be as thrilling as discovering a new species, or paddling a Class 5 rapid.

Columbia River citizen monitoring

The Columbia Riverkeeper runs a citizen science program similar to SYRCL to monitor water quality of the Columbia River at 100 sites in Oregon and Washington. Like many river monitoring programs, retention rate for volunteers is high. Most volunteers return for at least two years and a number have been with the program since it began in 2006.

Columbia Riverkeeper's Water Quality Director, Lori Epstein teaches a student how to use a YSI meter, which measures dissolved oxygen.
Columbia Riverkeeper's Water Quality Director, Lori Epstein, teaches a student how to use a YSI meter, which measures dissolved oxygen.
Photo by Columbia Riverkeeper

“It’s a great way to get people out on the river to be our eyes and ears. If we hear of some emergency, we can call on them to respond to their site and check things out,” said Lorri Epstein, Water Quality Director at Columbia Riverkeeper. On one occasion, a volunteer saw an oily sheen on the water at a site and reported it quickly enough for a response team to set up effective containment and trace the oil back to a fuel station.

In addition to the standard parameters measured by SYRCL, Columbia’s program also collects monthly samples for bacteria testing. This testing’s usefulness was proved when it successfully detected a massive influx of bacteria at one site; the cause – a crack in a nearby sewer pipe – was quickly repaired.

Volunteers collect weekly bacteria samples at five popular recreation sites in the Columbia Gorge. The results are published on a Swim Safe website and also on a smart phone application. This sampling is partnered with the City of Hood River in monitoring the effectiveness of their nearby wastewater treatment plant.

The data collected in the Riverkeeper program matches state standards and follows a state approved protocol. This ensures the data will maintain standing in court. “We publish annual reports available online and share the data with the State Department of Environmental Quality and other researchers who want to study a specific issue, such as a particular population of fish,” said Epstein.

Recently, the US Forest Service requested stream temperature data from the Columbia Riverkeepers for a regional database and modeling project. This project is compiling data from multiple sources to develop a comprehensive regional database that will serve as the foundation for statistical models. These models will be used to predict future stream temperatures and assess the vulnerability of sensitive fish species and other aquatic resources in the Northwestern US.

San Pedro River wet/dry mapping

When scientist Holly Richter came to work in Arizona for The Nature Conservancy, she heard conflicting answers to the question, “Has the water level in San Pedro River changed?” Water users claimed that there had been no change. Some community members believed the river was drying up. The variation in replies from regional land-owners and community members made a clear case for research. “There was a lot of conflict and controversy over the river,” said Richter.  “I wondered what could be done to build consensus in the community and get an understanding of what’s going on. I thought, let’s go out and see how wet it is.”

In 1999, the first wet/dry mapping day occurred along Bureau of Land Management property of the San Pedro River. The plan was to take a one-day snapshot of where there was water in the riverbed during the driest time of year and repeat annually. When examined in conjunction with other studies in the watershed, the project could eventually show trends in water level.

Richter not only turned to river users for help, she invited city council members, teachers, realtors and others to get a representative group from the community to help collect data. Field teams were intentionally mixed with scientists, environmentalists and lay people to give more credibility to their data and invoke trust between volunteers. “I had to look at this as a social science issue as much as scientific research,” Richter said. Richter emphasizes that you should start with the end in mind: know what the question is, why you need to answer it and for whom.

She also notes that citizen science methods must be simple, and instruction given in a clear and concise way. Training volunteers involves the use of the equipment and a practice course before the field day. Data was originally collected on GPS units purchased by The Nature Conservancy, but now many partner groups purchase their own. Volunteers walk or ride horseback on reaches of the river ranging from 2-12 miles long. They mark where water starts and stops along the way. Over the years, team members became intimately familiar with their reaches of the river. Richter observed that when this happens, the volunteers gain a greater appreciation for the value of the river and the need for its sustainability. 

Now in its fourteenth year, the wet/dry survey has grown to include 120 volunteers and over 250 miles of mainstem river and tributaries. The project spans into Mexico toward the river’s headwaters. What started off partly as a community building project has been embraced by the scientific community, with information being widely used by other researchers. That sort of recognition has reinforced to the volunteers that they are doing meaningful work.

The results have shown huge variability from reach to reach and from year to year in water levels. Only one reach has shown a significant trend, which is an increase in water level attributed to conservation easements halting irrigation on surrounding lands. People have accepted the results at face value even though there is no absolute answer. What makes the project successful is that both sides of the argument will use the same data set to support their positions. 

Take-home lessons

The examples above have common threads, but they are specialized to fit the particular needs of each river. People saw a need to understand more about their rivers; they identified what their major concerns were, and decided what type of information could be collected with easily executed protocols. Here are a few key points in developing citizen science programs:

  • Partnering with other community groups and government agencies makes a program more robust, credible and opens opportunities for funding.
  • Consistency in leadership is a key component for a sustainable program. Leadership changes need to include a thorough transfer of knowledge to new leaders.
  • A qualified scientific advisor is needed to help set up programs and be involved in the periodic review of the resulting data.
  • Volunteers often step forward, but can and should be recruited from all parts of the community.
  • Most programs require long periods to show any trends.
  • Definitive results are not likely, but trends will give you an increased likelihood of answering questions.

In today’s economy, funding for science is only going to get tighter. The citizen science approach makes sense financially and it adds a level of meaningfulness to a project. Connecting people with places, natural processes and the challenges we face is the only way we are going to find sustainable solutions.

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  • Haven Livingston is a freelance writer and biologist with a background in water resources management. Contact her at