Arizona Water Watch: Citizen Scientists Protect Natural Resources
By Warren Tenney
Arizona is training people to help protect their favorite streams, ponds, wetlands, rivers and lakes in every corner of the state and there are plenty of ways you can get involved. You can learn to operate scientific testing equipment and get wet and dirty on a regular basis - or once a year. You can simply take a photo and fill in a quick survey while you’re out hiking or camping. The goal of Arizona Water Watch is to collect more credible scientific data about the state’s streams, ponds, wetlands, rivers and lakes. This helps scientists protect the state’s water and the people who enjoy it.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) introduced Arizona Water Watch last year. So far, more than 100 volunteers have provided 6,000 water quality data records from hundreds of water sites. The data records have come from high school students, small community groups, and couples who have dedicated their retirement to regularly testing one or several water locations around the state. Here are ways you can volunteer.
Citizen Scientist as avocation: There may be a fishing spot or favorite swimming hole near you that you visit regularly. To test water at this site, visit the ADEQ Arizona Water Watch website and send an email requesting training. The agency will set up an appointment with a scientist who will conduct an all day training session with you right at the stream, wetlands, pond or river of your choice. Partner with at least one other person. Some groups of Citizen Scientists have more than 20 people, but two is the least ADEQ will train for a specific water location.
As a Citizen Scientist, you’ll learn to operate scientific equipment and record data. The ADEQ scientist will remain in email contact with you as you complete your data collection and will return about a month later to audit your data and answer more questions. Once the data is validated, the ADEQ scientist and you will develop a sampling plan, which determines which sites will be tested and when. ADEQ will expect at least four samples from a location each year and has produced short step-by-step instructive videos about each piece of sampling and testing equipment just in case you forget a step or two. Here are some examples of the type of data collected by Citizen Scientists.
- Measure a stream’s vital signs: Volunteers are taught to operate a Multi-Parameter Probe. Don’t worry this is easier than it sounds. The probe is a data-collecting device that looks like a 6-inch metal rod and collects data about the health of a stream, pond, lake or river. The probe is light and fits into a backpack. It has a long wire that attaches the probe to an electronic reader. When the probe is put into the water it sends the reader information about the vital signs of the river or stream, such as its temperature, dissolved oxygen and pH values. The ADEQ scientist teaches the volunteers to use the probe, read the numbers and then enter the numbers into a field form. Here’s a short video created to help volunteers.
- Detect E. coli: E. coli is a living organism with some strains that cause water-born diseases in humans. The ADEQ scientist teaches volunteers where and how to collect a water sample in a small bottle from a pond, stream, river or wetland. But that’s not all. ADEQ trains volunteers to process the sample for E. coli inside one of its mobile labs. These mobile labs may be at the site, a nearby community center or a forest service station, even at the home of the volunteer.
Citizen Scientist for a day: If you don’t have this sort of time, there are once-a-year events where you can lend a hand. ADEQ has used large groups of Citizen Scientists to map intermittent streams – those that only flow sometimes. On a certain day, volunteers are assigned a stretch of the stream to map by noting the GPS coordinates and determining if the stream is wet and for how long. This is important because it tracks flow changes over time and helps ADEQ scientists understand how these changes affect the wildlife and people who rely on the stream.
Citizen Scientist on the phone: You may not have the option to commit to training or to being at a certain place at a certain time. That’s fine, you can still help. In November, ADEQ developed an Arizona Water Watch app you can download from the App Store or Google Play. There is no training involved. Simply download the Arizona Water Watch app. Then, when you are hiking, biking, fishing or just picnicking by water, you can help by taking a photo of the lake, pond, stream or river. Then you fill out a simple yes-or-no survey and send it into ADEQ. So far, ADEQ has received 400 photos and surveys from the app. This information has several uses. For example, the information helps ADEQ scientists determine which streams are flowing, how much water is in the streams and in what months. This helps determine future study locations.
Many states have created Citizen Scientist programs over the last decade, but Arizona Water Watch’s user-friendly training, videos, field surveys and app are attracting calls from other states. They are looking for tips about how to create a successful Citizen Scientist program that is easy to learn and fun for volunteers, while producing credible and important information. If you have a favorite fishing or swimming spot in Arizona or just spend time camping and hiking, you can help to protect this state’s prettiest places.
For 49 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.