What can you do: Waterkeeper & Citizen Science

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 by Gabrielle Parent-Doliner, Manager, Swim Guide

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s first water sampling workshop at Breakwater Park, Kingston ON

At Lake Ontario Waterkeeper our citizen science programs were all born out of the question “what can I do to help?”

The term citizen science is newly coined. The involvement of the public in scientific research and data collection is not. Governments, research bodies, and schools frequently call on the public to test new technologies, collect data on everything from endangered animals and invasive species to new stars and planets, and participate in scientific studies and projects in all fields. Citizens are also instigators of science projects and programs in all disciplines.

Citizen science projects tend to have in common a goal of addressing a problem that people are worried about. Like their favourite body of water.

It’s no surprise to us that citizen science is a core component of water quality monitoring programs around the world.  While water quality monitoring programs that call on citizen scientists are commonplace, what keeps them going are personal relationships people have with their watershed.  Water quality monitoring helps address concerns people have for the waters to which they have a connection.  Because people aren’t asking “what can I do to protect water?” They are asking: “What can I do to protect my my beach; my lake; my river?”

This is an urgent question that requires all hands on deck. In the case of understanding and addressing the impact of sewage pollution on our waterways - an all too common issues for communities along Lake Ontario - if these ready-and-willing hands are snapping pictures of water pollution for pollution reports, donning surgical gloves and carrying coolers of sample bottles, all the better.

Understanding the scope of, and implementing solutions to threats to our swimmable, drinkable, fishable water can seem beyond the skill set of the concerned citizens asking what they can do to help; something for scientists and decision makers, and professionals to handle. However, the public can not only contribute to the science needed in understanding water quality issues, they are critical contributors to developing our water quality knowledge base.

Kingston and Frontenac Islands water quality monitoring

Breakwater Park and Wolfe Island Monitoring: Our Summer student Hannah McDonald has began sampling the waters off the Wolfe Island Boat Club and Breakwater Parks in July 2017. Results are available 24 hours after samples are collected, and are posted on Swim Guide. Our hope is to continue this sampling permanently, giving recreational water users the information they need to enjoy Lake Ontario. Breakwater Park is being sampled in order to develop a baseline of knowledge about the swimmability of the water of this immensely popular park which will soon be home to the country’s first natural swimming pier: The Gordon Edgar Downie Pier,  connecting people to water like never before.

Citizen Science and Swim Guide

Swim Guide is a beach information service created by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. Swim Guide started on Lake Ontario, as a way to answer the question “Where can I swim?”  Swim Guide now provides up to date water quality information for over 7000 beaches in 5 countries. Over 1 million people use Swim Guide to find clean places to swim. Where does all of this water quality data and beach information come from?  

Swim Guide is a service for the public. Water quality data is entered on a daily basis by over 70 Swim Guide affiliates. Swim Guide affiliates are non-profits, schools, business owners, and citizens who voluntarily find water quality information and put it into the hands of public by updating Swim Guide manually with test results from monitoring programs. In addition, nearly all of our 70 affiliates run recreational water quality monitoring programs.

Our affiliates’ citizen science water monitoring programs make up a huge portion of the data available on Swim Guide. Affiliate monitoring programs fill in the monitoring gaps not covered by municipal or county monitoring programs. They build up data base of water quality knowledge, and they inform the public about the water quality at popular yet unmonitored water bodies. Without citizen science, there would be no Swim Guide

“What can I do to protect my water?”

Big change requires lots of hands. One of the reasons water quality monitoring programs are some of the most popular citizen science programs is because people will show up for their beach, their favourite creek, their swimming hole, and fishing spot.  They love their waterbodies and they will do what they can to protect them. Science benefits both the work being done to protect and restore swimmable, drinkable, fishable water and increase the information available to the public.

What can you do to protect your water

  • Commit to protecting our natural waters. Visit www.waterkeeper.ca/promiseto mark your commitment as a promise.
  • Volunteer to sample water quality with waterkeeper or other local organizations that are doing water conservation. Email volunteers@waterkeeper.ca to find out how you can collect water samples with waterkeeper.
  • Report Pollution when you see it. Use www.swimguide.org/report to submit a pollution report immediately.

There is a lot that needs to be done to ensure the water bodies we love to swim in, and rely on for drinking water are protected. No one person - or organization can, or should - do it alone. The responsibility falls on all of us - because together we can make sure our future is swimmable, drinkable, and fishable.