Water Science and You

The need for data is growing along with our water challenges. In the wake of gaps in personnel and funding, citizens can play a crucial role.

By Chloe L. Anderson

Nearly 20 degrees warmer than the early spring air, the Rainbow River’s glassy waters felt luxurious. But for 50 volunteers, the work had just begun. Swimming along the river’s vegetative edges with eyes alert, their fin-donned-feet propelled them upstream.

The mission? Turtles, to catch as many as possible before the end of the study area, designated by twin bald cypress trees about a mile upstream. The turtles would be tagged, measured and released.

Peter Meylan, a professor of biology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, has conducted turtle sampling in the Rainbow River with Eckerd students and volunteers since 1990.

“A healthy turtle community requires a healthy spring run and this requires adequate flows without excess nutrients,” he says. “What is good for the turtles is good for springs and good for drinking water.”

This year’s turtle research was part of a larger monitoring initiative by the nonprofit Florida Springs Institute (FSI), called Springswatch, to collect baseline data at Ichetucknee, Wakulla and Rainbow River Springs. Florida has been a leader in so-called citizen science since the development of Florida Lakewatch thirty years ago. Environmental scientist Bob Knight, FSI’s founding director, says volunteers not only inform science, but improve it.

“Collaboration is amazing,” Knight said. “It increases performance so much when different efforts can be put together and done simultaneously. It brings a lot more eyes and hands to the problem.”

  • Volunteers examine a turtle during the sample at the Rainbow River. (photos by Emily Taylor)
  • Peter Meylan of Eckerd College has led volunteers to sample turtles in the Rainbow River for 25 years, providing important data for scientists. (photos by Emily Taylor)
  • (photos by Emily Taylor)
  • Bob Knight of the Florida Springs Institute on a turtle-sampling trip on the Rainbow River. (photos by Emily Taylor)
  • Volunteers on the Rainbow River. (photos by Emily Taylor)

Scientists working with longer-term citizen-science programs such as Florida Lakewatch and the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS, say volunteers have made crucial contributions, filling funding and personnel gaps in government science.

Lakewatch began in the 80s when citizens, concerned about their lakes and lacking guidance from the government, came to Daniel Canfield, a professor of limnology at the University of Florida, for help.

“I’ve trained graduate students how to sample water, why can’t I train them?” Canfield thought.

He went on to found Lakewatch, one of the earliest and most successful citizen-science programs. Since 1986, thousands of volunteers have collected reliable, long-term water quality data from over 1,100 lakes, 175 coastal sites, 120 rivers, and five springs from 57 Florida counties. Their work has influenced research and policy –resulting in some 40 academic publications and informing lake-management decisions.

Lakewatch overcame initial resistance from government, NGO and environmental groups – as well as continued resistance from professionals questioning the credibility of the citizen-collected data. Personally vested volunteers, UF’s land-grant tradition, and eventual adoption of the program by the Florida Legislature, with annual funding from the Water Quality Assurance Trust Fund, all helped Lakewatch succeed.

Credibility has been less of a problem for CoCoRaHS, a national volunteer network working to measure and map precipitation ever since a devastating flood hit Fort Collins, Colo., in 1997 and inspired scientists and citizens to act. The flood caused more than $200 million in damages. But very little data was available on the storm itself because it hit in small area where rainfall hadn’t been collected.

The program grew rapidly. Volunteers mount high-quality rain gauges at home. Every day, thousands of volunteers enter their rainfall results online. The data are instantaneously uploaded to national maps. More than 20,000 collecting stations submitted data in 2015.

“When you get a sufficient level of participation and have a sufficiently well-defined set of protocols, then you can quality control the data almost internally, just by cross comparing data,” said Nolan Doesken, founding director of CoCoRaHS.

Doesken is the state climatologist for Colorado at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. He describes himself as the “main spokesperson, cheerleader, and fundraiser” for CoCoRaHS.

His work and volunteers have made a difference. When a similarly catastrophic flood struck again in 2013, CoCoRaHS was ready to help with timely data. “We were able to do very detailed analyses of rainfall patterns immediately after and during the storm. This was an ‘aha’ moment … [CoCoRaHS] works,” Doesken said.

Despite successes, funds are always an issue for citizen science initiatives.

“We have literally more than $2,000 a month of just hard expenses to keep the website running,” Doesken said. But dedicated volunteer leaders across the country “do extraordinary things for no pay whatsoever,” pushing the program onward.

Due to severe cutbacks, the state of Florida, once critical of Lakewatch, now depends on its data and volunteers. Volunteers are able to sample much larger areas than paid professionals.

“Every successful NGO that’s dependent on soft money grants and donations has to amplify their work by the use of volunteers,”said Knight.

Education is also a focus for citizen-science efforts. Volunteering “educates people and many of them become advocates for protecting the springs,” said Knight.

“If we’re only engaging experts, then the educational value is lost because we want a lot of people to be learning how to do this” explained Doesken.

Educated and invested volunteers are always needed and can make a real difference in local and regional freshwater issues. It’s as easy as catching a turtle, checking your rain gauge or studying a lake.

How to Help

Citizen scientists around Florida and the nation are helping fill crucial gaps in data collection on everything from turtles in the Rainbow River to rainfall in the backyard. Here are three ways to get involved:

Monitor the lake in your backyard:

Work to protect Florida’s springs:
Florida Springs Institute

Help map national precipitation:

About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.