Citizen Monitoring and Training

As a young college student, I (Brian Oram) worked with the Susquehanna River Tri-State Association to develop and implement a “stream monitoring” or “stream watch program.” This program included basic training related to the water cycle, pathways for pollution migration, hydrology, water quality, water testing, and field safety. During the training, one citizen coined the phrase: it is simple, we should care about the stream, because “We ALL Live Downstream.” The River Watch program partnered college students with community volunteers. Most of the community volunteers were retired seniors with a diverse background in business, industry, and NGO’s. During the initial stage of the project, the citizens reported that they got involved with the program to “Protect The Environment,” to “Find Illegal Discharges,” to “Check the Local Sewage Treatment Plant,” to “Get Rid of the Red Water” and “Sulfur Smell,” and to “Protect the Fishery.” The citizens were mostly focused on finding illegal point-source discharges, finding acid mine drainage, and in improving stream “health” to maintain the fishery, but few really understood what or how the stream and watershed functioned. Many of the citizens were unaware of the importance and role of non-point-source pollution or how surface water and groundwater are connected and the importance of maintaining groundwater recharge to help to maintain the thermal quality and water quality of the stream network.

During the period from 1984 to 2011, we actively worked with citizens, environmental groups, landowners, and local colleges and universities to implement an effective “Citizen-Science-based Environmental Monitoring Program” and in 2009 we started the Citizen Groundwater and Surface Water Database to compile certified laboratory data that was being developed during the initial stages of natural gas development in Pennsylvania. Since 1984, the monitoring tools and methods have changed, but the training process for the “citizen scientist” has always been about developing critical thinking skills, helping to build connections, and properly educating and informing the citizen scientist. Over the past 30 years, the environmental monitoring equipment has evolved from bulky field laboratory equipment with significant laboratory support to small more technologically advanced multiple-parameter sensors that require laboratory support to maintain quality control. The term “Boots on the Ground” tends to be used to mean, in this context, ‘troops’ on the ground in water. During this time period, we had a rise of the "Social Justice Environmental Scientist.”  I am not a fan of this approach and terminology because it mixes fact-based science with feelings and ideologies. This mixture tends to cause the scientific method to get a bit too flexible.

We need "Boots on the Ground" - This is not about war, but the “Citizen Scientist.” The "Citizen Scientist" is a properly trained, equipped, and informed citizen who is a significant field asset and human sensor to help protect the environment and human health. Even today, the most effective sensors are the human eyes, ears, and nose and a thinking brain with a pair of boots on the ground. The development and deployment of affordable real-time sensors with data-logging capacity is now expanding the citizen’s role to not just be a pair of eyes in the field, but to also have the ability to track water quality and environmental changes spatially and temporally. If you are going to be a "Citizen Scientist,” I would strongly suggest you act as a fact-based professional who uses the scientific method and, if possible, who tries to put a given ideology to the side and to go with the facts, the data, and the information. The public is best served when they get the facts and not the fear.

What is a Watershed and "Be Like Water"?

The Environmental Protection Agency defines a watershed as “the area that drains to a common waterway, such as a stream, lake, estuary, wetland, aquifer, or even the ocean” and one classic definition or description by John Wesley Powell is “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.” The only problem is that most of our communities are disconnected from this watershed concept. In general, our municipal boundaries are not contiguous with watershed boundaries and in many cases the natural stream channels have been buried, altered, or otherwise destroyed through degradation, urban development, and agricultural processes. Also, the watershed concept only explains a portion of the water cycle and does not adequately depict the connection between surface water (wetlands, lakes, estuaries, oceans) and groundwater and leaves the impression that groundwater flows in underground rivers. When we discuss the watershed concept, we like to present the idea based on an understanding of the balance between water recharge, conveyance, and discharge and with respect to the entire water cycle.

The Water Cycle

The water cycle is a conceptual wheel that depicts the idea that there is a closed system for water on our planet. When Bruce Lee spoke about Kung-Fu, he said, “Be Like Water.” For the martial artist, this tends to have a meaning to not be firm and steadfast to a concept or an approach, but be willing to change and adapt. Be Like water – water flows and adapts to its environment and the properties of water make it a critical resource to help establish life on this planet. Before we can talk about the water cycle, how much water is on the planet Earth? Table 1 provides a breakdown of the amount of water on the planet.

Table 1 | The Amount of Water on the Earth.

Water source Water volume, in cubic miles Water volume, in cubic kilometers Percent of freshwater Percent of total water
Oceans, Seas, & Bays 321,000,000 1,338,000,000 -- 96.54
Ice caps, Glaciers, & Permanent Snow 5,773,000 24,064,000 68.7 1.74
Groundwater 5,614,000 23,400,000 -- 1.69
    Fresh 2,526,000 10,530,000 30.1   0.76
    Saline 3,088,000 12,870,000 --   0.93
Soil Moisture 3,959 16,500 0.05 0.001
Ground Ice & Permafrost 71,970 300,000 0.86 0.022
Lakes 42,320 176,400 -- 0.013
    Fresh 21,830 91,000 0.26 0.007
    Saline 20,490 85,400 -- 0.006
Atmosphere 3,095 12,900 0.04 0.001
Swamp Water 2,752 11,470 0.03 0.0008
Rivers 509 2,120 0.006 0.0002
Biological Water 269 1,120 0.003 0.0001

Source: Igor Shiklomanov's chapter "World fresh water resources" in Peter H. Gleick (editor), 1993, Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World's Fresh Water Resources.

Therefore, 99.2% of the water is in the form of ocean, seawater, saline water, ice, or swamp water and only 0.77 percent of the water is considered fresh, unfrozen water. Of the total amount of freshwater on the planet, 68.7 percent of the freshwater is “stored” as ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow.

The water cycle is a cycle; there is no real beginning or end and the cycle tracks the transportation of water through its various phases. For the sake of discussion, we will start in the ocean. Through a process of evaporation and/or sublimation, water is transformed from a liquid into a gas (water vapor). This gas enters the atmosphere and as the air cools or warms or the air pressure changes, the degree of saturation for the water in the air increases or decreases. The process of water vapor condensation in the air creates clouds. The clouds form when moist, rising warm air cools and ultimately expands in the atmosphere. When the air becomes saturated with water vapor, the water vapor in the air condenses, forming tiny water droplets. Clusters of rising, cooling, and condensing masses of air and water droplets (or ice crystals if the air is cold enough) are clouds. When the water droplets become too large to stay in the atmosphere, gravity causes them to fall towards the earth surface. Depending on the temperature, the water may ultimately return to the Earth’s surface as dew, drizzle, rainfall, frost, snow, sleet, fog, or even hail.

So, as a Citizen Scientist please be a scientist first and be like water.  Follow the facts and use these facts to help inform our fellow citizens and social organizations, but be willing to adapt and change based on new facts and information. We do not need fear and scare tactics to inform, educate, and make positive change, because the facts will support the policies, plans, and suggestions the facts support a hypothesis which may ultimately evolve into a theory or a ‘law.’

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