The Role of Citizen Science and Water Quality

You don't have to be a formally educated scientist to be a citizen scientist - all you need is the willingness to participate!

Last week, NepRWA staff presented water quality results from our 2016 Citizen Water Monitoring Network (CWMN) season. For those of you that are less familiar with CWMN, it is a volunteer-based water quality monitoring program that NepRWA has run for over 20 years.

Once a month, from May to October, over 50 volunteers partake in various water quality monitoring activities at 41 sites throughout the watershed, and the Neponset River main stem. From collecting water quality samples to taking dissolved oxygen measurements to driving samples to the MWRA lab on Deer Island, there is no shortage of work to be done in order to obtain water quality data.

CWMN volunteers, among others, at the water quality presentation

During our water quality presentation, guest speaker Professor Rob Stevenson from UMass Boston gave an inspiring talk on the merits of using volunteers to obtain water quality data.

Known as “citizen science”, this is the idea that everyone in a community can become engaged and contribute to scientific observations, projects, and data collection.

You don’t have to be a formally educated scientist to be a citizen scientist – all you need is the willingness to participate! One of the major benefits to citizen science is that you are able to cover more area and collect data on a greater scale.

Using CWMN as an example, if NepRWA relied on staff alone to do all the monitoring activities needed done in the short window of a single morning, we would not be able to do even a small fraction compared to what we are able to accomplish with the help of our volunteers.

Right now, both national and international-scale projects are very successful due to the implementation of citizen science. Examples of these are eBird, Galaxy Zoo, and iNaturalist. A number of discoveries can be credited to citizen science as well. Caren Cooper’s list of citizen science discoveries is as follows:

  • birds are breeding earlier
  • birds ranges are shifting
  • the extent of marine plastic debris
  • the climate is changing (ground-based weather data)
  • shifts in wind with climate change
  • Jupiter-sized planet that could support life around another star
  • Monarch butterflies migrate 4000 miles to Mexico
  • Invasive mosquito species has arrived in Germany
  • extracts from Madagascar periwinkle can treat diabetes
  • endangered monk seals are attempting to re-colonize the eastern Mediterranean Sea
  • health impacts of truck traffic
  • industrial hog farms impact human health
  • widespread declines in pollinators 
  • selectivity of retinal neurons
  • treats from invasive water snakes
  • about 50 types of bacteria live in your navel

Books on citizen science

Plus, the entire fields of oceanography and tidology were founded in the mid-1800s via citizen science!

The data from the CWMN program is used in a variety of ways. Not only do we share the data with MassDEP, towns, and the public, but we also rely on this data to identify stressors, trends, and dynamics throughout the watershed.

Having run this program for over 20 years, NepRWA has been able to compile a long data set, which is especially useful in identifying areas where water quality has changed over time. This data is also essential when working to obtain grant funding for water quality improvement projects. When you have the data to back up your reasons for particular projects, it creates a much more compelling argument in favor of granting funds. None of this information would be available if not for the hard work and dedication of our citizen scientists!

If you are interested in becoming a CWMN volunteer, or would like to know more about citizen science, please email for more information. If you are interested in other citizen science projects, a great resource is SciStarter.

Meghan Rauber

March 2017

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