The culture of volunteer water quality monitoring

(image sourced from Flickr)

(image sourced from Flickr)

I had one Big Question: Why are so many US citizens monitoring the water quality of their local lakes?

To answer this, I feverishly wrote funding applications to cover the necessities of travelling to the U.S. Thanks to Fulbright NZ, The North American Lake Management Society (NALMS) and my supervisor’s research fund (supplied through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment), I attended a symposium in Florida (hosted by NALMS). The event drew together around 400 diverse participants ranging from scientists, managers, NGOs, tribal groups to community groups (e.g., Lake Associations).

Thanks to many in depth conversations with my generous hosts from the University of Florida (Florida Lakewatch)and the Cary Institute of Ecosystems Studies (NY), their staff, volunteers, various managers and others, I now have a few insights the Big Questions of why the culture of lake monitoring in the U.S. is so strong. The list isn’t complete and it’s in no particular order:

There are a lot of people and a lot of lakes
Large parts of the U.S. are very wet. Whole states such as Florida, Minnesota, Alaska, New York and Wisconsin are liberally pocketed with lakes, the landscape either having been gouged out by glaciers, submerged and then lifted, scarred by volcanism and so on – in short, the U.S. is an old landmass that bears the legacy of major environmental changes. Large populations, urban and rural development generally result in poor outcomes for water quality, so visible declines are widespread. For the record, New Zealand is around twice the size of New York State and has less the one-quarter the number of inhabitants. Florida is slightly larger than New York but has a million or so less inhabitants.

There isn’t a lot of funding
There aren’t enough government agency staff to regularly monitor lakes across the U.S. – they too have had their budgets cut for fundamental activities such as monitoring.

There are incentives
Land values are tied to lake water quality – a view over a chartreuse crust on the lake isn’t a great selling point for your house. In some cases, water quality monitoring is left up to the community as there isn’t enough agency capacity to monitor all lakes in a region; for other lakes, water quality matters become the responsibility of the community simply because there is no public access – properties abut one another without so much as a public boat ramp for anyone who doesn’t live lakeside. For smaller lakes in states like Florida, this is not uncommon.

There is support and leadership
Universities may have an extension focus (particularly if they land grant universities) and operate certified labs for testing water quality. Well-established protocols for monitoring lake water quality exist for groups to follow.

Data are multi-purpose
The community benefits as data gathering not only serves an educational function, but is used by the community to manage their own water bodies. Scientists benefit as the data may contribute to better understanding the ecology of lakes across a region. Agencies in many cases benefit where volunteer data fills gaps and helps them determine their management interventions. Win-win and win.

Now that I have had time to ponder the question I began with, the next question is inevitably “Can we develop a culture of community volunteer lake monitoring in New Zealand?” I’ll leave it hanging there for now and tackle this question in another post sometime soon.

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