April is Citizen Science Month!

Citizen scientists conduct water chemistry tests on an Alabama stream.
Photo Credit: Mona Dominguez

Have you heard people buzzing about citizen science lately? Did you know April is Citizen Science Month?! It seems that over the last few years, this term has been popping up everywhere. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, citizen science is “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” We also refer to this concept as community-science.; however, this is not a new phenomenon.

In fact, the origins of citizen or community science can be traced all the way to the end of the 19th century when volunteers in the U.S. reported rainfall and air temperature to the National Weather Service. The concept that citizens can collaborate in the name of river protection reaches back even farther with the English tradition of paid “Riverkeepers” who were tasked by local fishermen to “watch” and take care of the river.

Air temperature is one of the first pieces of data reported by citizen scientists in the U.S. and continues to be an important measurement for environmental health.
Photo Credit: Sydney Zinner

In the early 1920’s, the Izaak Walton League of America (IWL) formed and began monitoring water quality and pollution in the U.S. It provided water chemistry data to the federal government, businesses, and industries and worked to increase awareness of pollution issues to members of the general public. By the late 1960’s, programs that trained volunteers to engage in water monitoring began to take hold. Maryland’s Save Our Streams was one of the pioneer programs (Firehock and West).

Do these concepts sound familiar to you? We hope so! Volunteers with the Alabama Water Watch Program have been conducting citizen science for nearly 30 years now.  AWW was established in 1992, at a time that the EPA began encouraging the involvement of citizens in volunteer monitoring as a way to address nonpoint source pollution, which is pollution that enters waterways when it is carried across the landscape by runoff.  AWW began as an outreach unit within the Auburn University Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture, and was supported through grants that came primarily from the AL Department of Environmental Management. In 2013, AWW became part of the Auburn University Water Resources Center where it is largely supported by the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station and Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

AWW monitors use refractometers to measure salinity for coastal sampling sites.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

With the help of citizen trainers, AWW has certified over 8,800 volunteers as Water Chemistry, Bacteriological, and Biological (Stream Biomonitoring) Monitors. AWW stores the valuable water data collected by volunteers all over the state in a database. Online tools to view, graph, and analyze data are publicly available on the AWW website. Agencies, municipalities, and other organizations including watershed groups use AWW data to identify and address water quality issues. Furthermore, through our partnership with Alabama 4-H, we are able to engage Alabama youth with water monitoring.

4-H’ers conduct stream biomonitoring to determine water quality in a stream in Calhoun County.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Gann

Why do hundreds of AWW volunteers go out to creeks, lakes, bays every month to collect water data? Having credible information or data about a waterbody is the first step to protecting healthy waterbodies, and restoring those that are polluted. By having the skills to collect and understand water data, people are empowered to take care of the waters they love. I hope that one reason for the growing interest in citizen science is because people are becoming more aware of the need to protect our water resources.

According to the Volunteer Water Monitoring Network, there are an estimated 1,700 volunteer water monitoring programs in existence in the United States! Citizen science is not limited to the U.S. of course. Even AWW has partner programs in the Global Water Watch Program that are conducting similar water testing in countries that include Mexico, Argentina, and Peru. And citizen science is not limited to water monitoring.

Global Water Watch Mexico volunteer monitor testing hardness of a local stream.
Photo Credit: Josh Woods

If you are a monitor with AWW, you know that for a volunteer to submit water data to AWW, they must strictly adhere to testing protocol, and only use approved AWW monitoring equipment. They also must maintain their monitor status by attending periodic recertification sessions. All of these steps are outlined in the AWW Quality Assurance Plans, and if followed will result in the collection of credible water data.  Programs, like AWW, who have made data credibility a priority, have paved the way for citizens science to be used increasingly by governmental agencies and other organizations. In fact, in 2017, the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act (Sec. 402 of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act) was created in part to encourage the incorporation of citizen science into the work of federal agencies.  The act states that,

“Crowdsourcing and citizen science projects have a number of additional unique benefits, including accelerating scientific research, increasing cost effectiveness to maximize the return on taxpayer dollars, addressing societal needs, providing hands- on learning in STEM, and connecting members of the public directly to Federal science agency missions and to each other.”

U.S. Congress

AWW data has always been utilized by our state environmental management agency, but the Crowdsourcing Act, we have new opportunities including our recent project with the USDA Forest Service.

An Alabama Water Watch volunteer monitor records data in the field.
Photo Credit: Mona Dominguez

There are citizen science programs and projects that engage people in research focused on everything from bumble bees to Alzheimer’s disease. If you are not already a citizen scientist with AWW, we hope you’ll consider becoming a part of our program. Visit our Events page for upcoming opportunities to get certified and start monitoring a local waterbody. If you can’t monitor but want to be involved, consider becoming a member of the Alabama Water Watch Association and supporting AWW volunteers in honor of Citizen Science month!