Citizen scientists sought to help protect state’s water quality
Clemson University and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control are seeking South Carolinians who care about preserving water quality in their home state to serve as scientists — with no Ph.D. or prior training necessary.
Through partnership, these two state agencies launched the first statewide water monitoring program, South Carolina Adopt-a-Stream (SCAAS), to boost observations of water conditions across the state and involve all stakeholders in the conservation of our state’s greatest resource.
A 2016 study by Clemson University professors found natural resource-based sectors contribute $33.4 billion in economic activity annually to the state’s economy. Of the six sectors analyzed, four — fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing ($2.7 billion); coastal tourism ($9 billion); commercial fisheries ($42 million); and the boat industry ($1 billion) — rely intrinsically on the state’s water to keep them afloat.
But the need to preserve the state’s water resources goes far beyond economics, said Center for Watershed Excellence Director Katie Callahan.
“In South Carolina, water recreation, fishing, shellfish harvesting and more are our culture,” she said. “If we’re not paying attention to whether we can continue to safely swim, recreate, harvest oysters, manage our own nutrient discharges and so on, then we’re losing a big part of what makes this state great.”
SC AAS uses data collected by volunteers to help track patterns and changes in the health of some of the state’s streams where data otherwise would not be collected, by focusing on forming local partnerships to expedite solutions to water quality concerns. For example, educators can use the program for reality-based student science, and families and groups can make a deeper connection with their natural environment together.
While a major demographic of the program’s current volunteers is comprised of older or retired professionals, Callahan said SC AAS needs the involvement of residents of all ages and backgrounds to reach its full potential.
“The biggest reason that people should care about South Carolina Adopt-a-Stream, in my mind, is that for the average resident there’s not really a forum for people — just general folks — to talk about concerns related to water quality,” she said.
SC AAS encourages partnerships at the local level. Citizen scientists are provided education and instruction, as well as all of the tools necessary to record the health of often unmonitored streams. These data provide insights to local officials with limited budgets to monitor every waterway. Data can help inform planners and engineers what areas need more monitoring, better management, or preservation of pristine conditions.
SC AAS encourages partnerships between volunteers, local communities, and state and local governments to act on findings. Citizens are provided education and instruction, as well as all the tools necessary to record the health local streams, these data provide insights for local officials to better plan for and opportunities to participate in long-term planning initiatives to protect and restore these waters.
“DHEC is excited to be part of this outreach initiative with Clemson University,” said Director of Environmental Affairs Myra Reece. “Citizen science is more relevant now than ever before, as the public is hungry for opportunities to be more involved and informed about water quality. SC Adopt-a-Stream allows volunteers to share water quality and stream habitat data that can be used at a screening level for communities.”
Callahan said this is especially important in areas of the state where growth is taking place at a rapid pace, leading to concerns about how development and increases in impervious surfaces might be affecting ecosystems and waterway health from the Upstate to the Lowcountry and all points in between.
“There’s no place for the average stakeholder to really talk about that and bring it to county council or city council’s attention and have a meaningful discussion about conservation, water management, and water quality and how that impacts their quality of life,” she said. “So, the S.C. Adopt-a-Stream program gives people not only training and understanding of the relationships between land-use change and water quality, but it also gives them a quantitative way to track how water quality is changing or how river conditions are changing over time. It gives people a forum, a voice and a community in a language per se that is spoken by planners, engineers, officials, scientists, and others.”
While the program’s name might lead some to infer that its primary responsibility is picking up trash, there’s far more to it than that — including the opportunity to serve as a scientist in a very real and tangible way.
“We encourage people to report or pick up trash, but the focus is on assessment and monitoring of river conditions — that’s physical conditions, chemical conditions, bacteria in the waterway, specifically E. coli, and the presence and diversity of macroinvertebrates in the bottom of the stream,” Callahan said.
Adopting a stream means to take on the stewardship of a portion of that waterway. Volunteers will learn about the local watershed, including stream and habitat quality, as well as how to collect water quality data that can be shared with their local community. The integrity of the trainings, materials and procedures are approved by DHEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Citizen science is going to change how we do business,” Callahan said. “By simply pulling their phone out of their pocket, people have more information at their fingertips than ever before. The SC Adopt-a-Stream program has an online database that is transparent; people can look up where sites are, photos of the site, data collected and trends.”
And Callahan emphasized that the data is not simply being collected, it’s being put to use.
“The database can trigger alerts to counties and cities about significant bacteria issues or sewer overflows,” she said. “Cities and counties can download the data and evaluate it for where maybe they should move their own monitoring stations. The program is really filling in these information gaps through the use of consistently trained citizen scientists.”
Consecutive reports of high bacteria in surface waters also get sent immediately to DHEC Bureau of Water staff for appropriate response.
Trey Burns, source water specialist for Anderson Regional Joint Water System, said that for his organization, a water utility who does not own its source of water, Adopt-a-Stream has been vital in determining what is happening upstream of its intake on Lake Hartwell.
“Four streams supply the majority of our drinking water, and we have adopted all of them,” Burns said. “The data collected has shown us where to focus resources in protecting our drinking water and has led to many incredible partnerships with the public and other organizations as we all aim to protect one of earth’s most precious resources.”
The first phase of program launched in June 2017, with the release of the SC Adopt-a-Stream Freshwater Monitoring Handbook and SC AAS Database. By the start of 2018, nearly 200 people were certified and recording water quality and quantity data. As of August 2019, the program has had 1,231 certifications and recertifications, including 539 certifications and recertifications in 2019 alone.
Currently, only training resources for freshwater river monitoring are ready, and the majority of monitoring is happening in the Upstate and Columbia, but interest from the Pee Dee to Aiken has the program bringing in data from new areas and new eyes and ears in the field.
“The program still has a lot of growing to do,” Callahan said. “This is a program built for the volunteers and the communities that utilize these results. Our state team, DHEC and Clemson, thank those original volunteers who mobilized these collaborations, and the many communities, organizations and colleges now broadening this program’s reach.”
Those interested in being involved should consult the SC AAS website to find training events and sign up for the e-news.