This Initiative is Making Citizen Science Smarter in Lake Erie

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Jeff Kart
December 21, 2021
volunteer community citizen science lake erie

Citizen scientists lend a vital hand in monitoring water quality across Lake Erie and its watersheds. Now, a regional initiative led by the Cleveland Water Alliance (CWA) aims to arm community groups with tools and infrastructure to improve and unify their efforts.

Now at the end of its second year, CWA’s Smart Citizen Science Initiative brings together monitoring work organized by governmental organizations and volunteers from nonprofits in Michigan, Ohio and New York.

For years, groups of volunteers have collected data to keep track of the health of Lake Erie watersheds. But these community scientists use different collection methods and distribute their findings in various ways, from grade-school projects to group reports to research for use by academics and agencies.

CWA’s initiative seeks to create a network of citizen scientists and use specific approaches to collect water quality information as part of a regional dataset, says Max Herzog, program manager for the Cleveland Water Alliance in Ohio.

“So far, it’s worked out quite well. The way the collaboration has been approached is, ‘What is in the common interest of all groups?’ … A lot of it is really about elevating the credibility of their data.”

Developing Standards

Separate from CWA’s efforts, the International Joint Commission (IJC) Great Lakes Science Advisory Board is working to develop frameworks for credible citizen science across the Great Lakes basin (also known as community science).

The board’s Research Coordination Committee contracted with specialists from Michigan-based LimnoTech, CWA and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife department, to conduct a resource and literature review of “the best of the best” community science resources and tools, says Chris Winslow, director of Ohio Sea Grant, who also serves on the IJC committee and co-leads the project.

“It should be able to refine the ongoing efforts of the Cleveland Water Alliance,” Winslow says.

The idea is to come up with a draft framework, step one of a two-part process to develop a handbook that amateur scientists can use to collect standardized data.

The guide would include various monitoring methods based on who uses the data, such as a local community, university or a government agency. The framework is due by end of January 2023, and the committee hopes to craft a handbook by early 2024, depending on future funding, Winslow says.

Local Champions

CWA’s initiative is an offshoot of a lake-by-lake regional program called the Great Lakes One Partnership, a coalition of community foundations in Canada and the United States committed to improving ecosystem health and community engagement across the basin. The idea was inspired by outcomes of CWA’s 2017 Erie Hack competition to find solutions to Lake Erie’s biggest problems, which include harmful algal blooms.

“We saw some really interesting innovations in the area of citizen science technology,” Herzog says. “This idea of, ‘What can we enable everyday people to understand about their water resources? What kinds of contaminants can be measured to identify where there might be issues?’”

Current funding for the Smart Citizen Science network totals around $1,150,000, primarily from the Great Lakes One Water Partnership. CWA recently committed another $150,000 for monitoring equipment, data infrastructure and regional project management to enable partners to fully implement standards across the Lake Erie region through 2022 and 2023, Herzog says.

So far, nine organizations have collected data under the initiative.

CWA calls them Local Champions: the Huron River Watershed Council, Metroparks Toledo, Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, Erie County Soil & Water Conservation District, Cleveland Metroparks, Rocky River Watershed Council, Euclid Creek Watershed Program, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper and the State University of New York at Fredonia.

CWA’s plans to standardize collection methods under the initiative in 2022 and 2023 will provide an easy entry point for new groups and communities to join the regional movement, Herzog says.

Particular focus will be given to ensuring the standards are accessible and promoted to volunteers in Ontario and Pennsylvania, two key regions that have been underrepresented in CWA efforts over the past two years.

metroparks volunteer water sample community science lake erie

A Metroparks Toledo volunteer measures a water sample. Credit: Randall Hyman/Great Lakes Protection Fund

Standardizing accessible technologies for use by citizen scientists is also an important component of the initiative. 

In 2020, CWA worked with a University of Akron startup called Erie Open Systems to test a spectrometer for nutrient detection, establishing a model for pilot projects by volunteers throughout the Smart Citizen Science network. Erie Open Systems also worked on a business plan to advance the technology.

CWA also invested in laboratory development and validation experiments. Local Champions collected more than 200 samples analyzed side-by-side with established methods across seven Lake Erie communities. The spectrometer is now part of a high school curriculum developed in partnership with the Leonard Gelfand STEM Center at Case Western Reserve University and teachers across the Lake Erie basin.

In 2021, CWA worked with Bowling Green State University and Ohio Sea Grant to pilot a Harmful Algal Bloom toxin analyzer from Colorado-based LightDeck Diagnostics, with support from a federal project. About 200 samples collected by Local Champions this field season are being analyzed as the year comes to an end. CWA expects to continue the pilot into 2022 with updates to the technology, Herzog says.

From Dissolved Oxygen to Temperature

“Between samples collected in our 2020 and 2021 program years and historical data, our partners have contributed over 5,700 individual water quality measurements to Water Reporter, our shared data platform,” Herzog says.

Parameters include dissolved oxygen, phosphates, pH (acidity), turbidity and temperature. Anyone can visualize, chart and download the data using a custom WEB WIDGET tool developed by The Commons, creators of Water Reporter. The widget can be embedded on community partner websites.

Herzog says it’s difficult to draw consistent conclusions from data collected so far by the Smart Citizen Science network, as partners and organizers are still refining collection standards.

But Winslow notes that the IJC Great Lakes Science Advisory Board framework will help identify best practices for community science in the Great Lakes basin and highlight common mistakes that prevent long-term adoption of such monitoring efforts.

The handbook will likely be a website with materials including advice on how to publicize the information that citizen scientists collect.

“If you can get at what a rigorous scientific experiment looks like, you’re training our next generation of scientists,” Winslow says.

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Jeff Kart

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.