When Valley Proteins, a chicken parts rendering plant in Dorchester County, MD, wanted to increase its permitted discharge into a tributary of Transquaking Creek, citizens concerned about the already poor water quality had several years of data to back them up. The data had been gathered by the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance’s volunteer water quality monitors.

“Even though it was just a hearing,” said Beth Ann Lynch, director of Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth, having the data “gave a scientific basis for our concerns, as opposed to just an opinion.” Lynch said that being able to cite data specific to the creek gave more weight to their concerns — concerns that will be reviewed by state agencies evaluating the permit application.

The Nanticoke Watershed Alliance is one of more than 300 volunteer groups that collect water samples from streams and tidal waters throughout the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed. They go by names like Sassafrass Samplers, Chester Testers, and Nanticoke Creekwatchers. They are passionate about their local waters and donate time — and often expenses — to protect the health of local waterways.

The data these volunteers collect are viewed as an untapped resource — especially given the growing need to understand the effectiveness of expensive local pollution reduction and restoration activities.

Today, the state-federal Bay Program partnership hopes to enlist the volunteer army of monitors in its efforts to assess the impact of Chesapeake cleanup efforts on local water quality.

But it will not be easy to marry the data collected from diverse volunteer efforts with those obtained from a long-established and highly refined monitoring system conducted by academics, agency staff and scientific contractors. And whether volunteer data can be used to assess progress toward meeting regulatory pollution reduction goals remains a question.

Figuring out how to include volunteer monitoring data is a new challenge for the Bay partnership, said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science, analysis and implementation at the EPA Bay Program Office. “The public anticipates that if there is a large investment (in restoration), there should be a measurable change,” Batiuk said. Local water quality information “is invaluable to knowing whether what we’re doing is working or whether we should be doing something a little different to get a better response from the system.”

Starting in 2015, the Bay Program plans to spend $200,000 to $400,000 annually to develop ways to tap into this “additional, cost-effective data and information.” In September, it invited proposals to help with “further integrating citizen-based and non-traditional environmental monitoring programs” into the program’s existing water quality monitoring network.

Part of the change is driven by the changing needs, and increased costs, of obtaining water quality data.

When the Chesapeake Bay monitoring network was developed in 1984, less than $1 million in federal funds and about twice that in contributions from the states supported it. The effort focused on gathering information about the health of the Bay’s tidal waters.

But as pollution reduction efforts ramped up, so did the need to collect information about the health of the nearly 200,000 miles of rivers and streams that feed the Bay.

Today, the network includes 161 tidal stations around the Bay and 122 nontidal sites throughout the watershed, where water quality samples are regularly collected at an annual cost of $12 million to $15 million in federal and state funds, according to Batiuk.

The financial downturn in 2008, coupled with federal cutbacks, has caused the Bay program to re-evaluate how to maintain the network and meet new needs for better local information. In the last two years, it launched a Building and Sustaining Integrated Networks — or BASINs — project, which is looking at how data from citizen and other groups can fill information gaps.

The Chesapeake Bay partners have sustained monitoring, Batuik said, better than almost anywhere in the world. The challenge is to “figure out a long-term, clear, important role for citizen-based science and monitoring.”

Incorporating non-agency data

Peter Tango, U.S. Geological Survey monitoring coordinator for the Bay Program, has no illusions about the challenge of integrating data from different sources into a complex, multi-state assessment program. He likens it to figuring out how to mix apples and oranges—both are fruit, but each is different.

The Clean Water Act requires states to regularly assess — and report on — the quality of water bodies in their jurisdictions. Data from these assessments form the basis for regulatory actions ranging from developing local total daily maximum loads to evaluating permit renewals for discharges from wastewater treatment and industrial facilities. The data must be of a known quality — obtained through rigorous, scientifically acceptable methods.

Much of the non-agency monitoring done by citizen-based groups, local governments or academia are unable or unwilling to meet these rigorous standards. These programs vary widely across the watershed. They are largely created to answer a variety of local questions and often vary from the needs of state governments.

Citizen groups use their data for public education and engagement, to identify local pollution hotspots, or inform watershed planner or to create river “report cards.” Much of the data needed for these uses does not meet the standards required by regulatory agencies, but it may be very useful to Bay Program managers to protect local waterways.

Some groups develop data quality controls adequate to meet the states’ needs. But this requires a significant expenditure of resources – and state agencies need to be equipped to receive and use the data.

Virginia has developed a tiered system for using “non-agency” data. Volunteer groups at the “highest” tier (or Level III) obtain their data using the same or equivalent methods as those used by state professionals. These data can be used to “list” or “delist” stream segments on the EPA’s impaired waters list.

For a group’s data to achieve Level III, the group must have a quality assurance program that specifies sample collection procedures, data entry and analysis, volunteer training, and other aspects of the group’s program — a process that is time-consuming, and costly, to undertake and maintain.

Virginia’s latest integrated report to EPA included data from almost 700 stations gathered by 27 Level III monitoring groups, said James Beckley, who oversees water quality assurance for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Beckley pointed to a Charlottesville-based organization, StreamWatch, that uses Level III protocols to conduct macroinvertebrate counts in the Rivanna River watershed. “Because of StreamWatch, DEQ is able to deploy monitoring resources elsewhere,” Beckley said. But the benefits are also seen locally, said David Hannah, StreamWatch executive director. Having Level III quality data empowers local partners and citizens to speak with confidence about the impacts of proposed projects.

The tier II and I data, though it cannot be used in the state’s biannual assessment, is still useful to the state, Beckley said. Virginia can use these data to identify problems or potential “hot spots” that agency professional can investigate. Groups that provide Level I data don’t need a quality assurance plan, but provide a way for citizens and other groups to submit data to the state that might be used to help state scientists identify trends.

The work of integrating non-agency data into state-level assessments is not trivial and requires state resources: Virginia has one staff person who coordinates with the more than 90 groups throughout the state. About half of Beckley’s time is devoted to evaluating the quality of non-agency data.

At the state agencies, there’s a balancing act between benefitting from more non-agency data and having the resources to effectively use the data.

“We can’t monitor everywhere all the time,” said Bruce Michael of Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Restoration Assessment Division, so additional data can be very helpful. But accepting data from multiple sources requires staff time to analyze and interpret the results to make sure the data are meaningful. “We don’t necessarily want to divert resources from our own long-term, comprehensive monitoring program to enhance the citizen monitoring program,” Michael said.

But, as the state continues to implement Bay restoration through its watershed implementation plan, having data from smaller geographic areas will show responses in the local habitat and water quality.

A case in point is the work of South Riverkeeper. Diana Muller. Volunteers help Muller gather data on temperature, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll a and salinity at 21 stations in the South River, which enters the Bay just south of Annapolis.

These data helped Muller show that the South River suffers from chronic low-oxygen levels in the summer, like the Bay’s mainstem.

“Data like these show how having more data at more sites more frequently can help us refine our assessment for a given segment of the Bay,” said Matt Stover of Maryland’s Department of the Environment.

But it took many meetings over two years, field observations and a rigorous review of her quality assurance plan, before the MDE started using Muller’s South River data when preparing the state’s “impaired waters list” — one of the few volunteer datasets in Maryland to be used this way.

Many motives for monitoring

Not all volunteering monitoring groups strive to have their data accepted by state agencies, or the Bay Program. Many groups start water quality monitoring programs based on an interest — or concern — about what’s happening in their local streams.

Lititz Run drains a small watershed in Warwick Township, PA. One of the fastest growing municipalities in Lancaster County, the township is home to a community of Plain Sect farmers and a major pharmaceutical company. Concerned about the stream’s degraded condition, in the mid-1990s the township began relying on water quality monitoring data to guide restoration efforts.

“If you are going to move a community to support watershed efforts,“ said Dan Zimmerman, township manager, “you have to be able to show progress.”

“We started with equipping our junior and senior high school kids with testing equipment 17 years ago,” he said, using the high school chemistry lab and building water quality monitoring into the curriculum. Every five years or so, Zimmerman said, the township sends its samples to an EPA-certified lab to verify the data.

The data were used to develop a watershed plan — and the plan has been used to target restoration. The results have been noteworthy — the once highly degraded stream now supports a coldwater trout fishery.

“Being able to measure the change,” Zimmerman said, helps people see the impact of their efforts — from livestock fencing to riparian buffers to managing manure in storage pits.

Nonprofit watershed associations may have other reasons for maintaining a volunteer water quality monitoring program.

The Chester River Association’s program has evolved from the early 1990s, when it collected data from a small number of sampling sites. Today, volunteer Chester Testers collect samples to measure nitrates, phosphates, ammonia and dissolved oxygen from 27 creeks and streams in the watershed year-round. Meanwhile, Isabel Hardesty, the Chester Riverkeeper, collects data from 20 mainstem sites in the Chester River, which is located midway up Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A certified laboratory analyzes those samples.

“We already know our river is on the impaired waters list,” Hardesty said. “We know that our main problem is nonpoint source pollution from agriculture, and we know what we need to do.” But, she said, the information provides a foundation for the work of the organization — advocacy and getting people involved.

Nanticoke Creekwatchers have been sampling since 2002 and are guided by an EPA-approved quality assurance program plan. “Creekwatchers’ data has already shown a decreasing trend in water clarity in the upper watershed,” said Beth Wasden of the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance. This helps the organization target areas to promote restoration activities.

The Nanticoke Watershed Alliance is fortunate, Wasden said, because a local laboratory analyzes the samples for nutrients and bacteria — a $70,000 annual service — for free. But there are significant costs, like the salaries of the two staff members, and upgrading equipment so the group can gather data at various water depths to better understand the dynamics of their local river.

Wasden knows that Bay Program scientists would value having data from different depths, but to do that would require an expensive equipment upgrade. “Working in a nonprofit, you are completely neurotic about funding — as you should be — but it’s a continual thing.”

State water managers also worry about the sustainability of watershed groups that offer data. “A lot of these groups have the same issues (as the state has) with resources,” said Stover of MDE. “It’s tough when groups don’t have the staying power,” he said, especially if the state has come to rely upon the data.

A growing trend among volunteer monitoring groups is to use water quality data to create river and watershed report cards. Carolyn Donovan is a program manager with the Integration & Application Network (IAN) at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which produces a Chesapeake Bay report card and helps watershed groups develop report cards through a program called EcoCheck.

Donovan said IAN has developed protocols for gathering, analyzing and reporting data in report cards, with guidance at both ends of the spectrum — a minimum sampling program and a Cadillac program.

“Maybe a group only has one or two really robust criteria that they can include in the report card,” she said, but the strategy is the same — being able to communicate the health of waterways to the people who count: citizens and decision-makers in communities and local governments.

Julie Vastine, director of the Alliance for Aquatic Resources Monitoring (ALLARM) out of Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, has worked with volunteering monitoring groups since 2001, as one of the six “service-providers” funded by the state to work with watershed groups.

“People weren’t doing ‘question-driven science,’ and they weren’t working through proper procedures,” Vastine said. Through the network, groups can get support to “build a scientifically robust question. Our mantra,” said Vastine, “is that all data of known quality have value.”

In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Environmental Protection uses water quality samples collected by trained volunteers and analyzed by certified laboratories, to test bacteria levels to determine whether water is safe for recreational use.

Vastine is encouraged by the Bay Program’s interest in using volunteer data because it will foster more conversation about the multiple uses of citizen science.

For the Chesapeake Bay program, how to best realize the value of data from volunteers is the real question.

Scott Phillips, the Chesapeake Bay coordinator for the USGS, recalled the Bay Program trying to use volunteer monitoring data in the past. “We hadn’t defined really strong objectives for the use of the data. If we can define these goals up front,” Phillips said, “there’s a greater chance of success.”

Nissa Dean of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, which pioneered citizen monitoring in the Bay Program in the 1990s and still works with monitoring groups in Virginia, thinks the time is ripe.

“What’s been lacking in the Bay restoration effort is the input from citizens all over the watershed,” she said. “When we produce a report card on a river and one of the scores is a “D,” people take notice because it’s the river in their backyard.”