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About Engagement

The Power of Participatory Citizen Science

UNH’s signature Lakes Lay Monitoring Program protects the state’s pristine waters through volunteer efforts

By David Sims

August 25, 2009

Scientists on boat

Thirty years ago, when UNH plant biology professor Alan Baker and zoology professor James Haney taught their lake ecology course, New Hampshire lakes were lucky to be monitored for water quality one day in the summer and one day in the winter – every seven years. Hardly an adequate means of tracking the health of lake waters.

But what the two limnologists did with a group of students one semester changed all that and helped spread a program of lake monitoring and protection across the United States.

In 1978 the two professors took their students up to Lake Chocorua in Tamworth, N.H. where they did a “complete limnological reconnaissance” – a short but complete look at the lake including depth sampling, mapping, nutrients, etc.

Because the state is blessed with many lakes, because they were being monitored only sporadically, and because the people living around those lakes were concerned about water quality, when word got around that the university had tested Chocorua so thoroughly using “volunteer” student labor the phones in the Department of Zoology started ringing off the hook.

“There weren’t many lake associations at the time but for some of the larger lakes – Winnipesaukee, Squam, Sunapee – their associations did contact the university asking if we could do similar studies,” notes Jeff Schloss, a UNH Cooperative Extension professor. And the calls kept coming. “Right away Baker and Haney decided there weren’t enough students to send out with all the requests that were coming in and that led to the creation of the NH Lakes Lay Monitoring Program,” adds Schloss who now serves as the program’s coordinator.

Today, thanks to the innovative program, 500 active volunteers gather an array of water-quality data by sampling lakes statewide during the 10-week summer season – the majority of them monitoring weekly through the late spring, summer, and early fall season. UNH students continue to be deeply involved in the program that, through its integration of research, outreach, and teaching, has become a model for engaging students in hands-on learning and faculty with external community partners to address relevant environmental issues.

“The Lakes Lay Monitoring Program is a significant and key example of how UNH faculty, extension educators, and staff partner with the State of New Hampshire to help address important societal issues,” says Julie Williams, UNH Senior Vice Provost for Engagement and Academic Outreach.

Williams stresses that the program’s work is central to UNH’s mission as a Carnegie Foundation “community-engaged” land- sea- and space-grant university. (The Carnegie Community Engagement classification is awarded in recognition of a college or university's exemplary alignment among their mission, culture, leadership, resources, and practices that support dynamic and noteworthy community engagement.)

Adds Williams, “I am pleased with the work of Jeff Schloss and his science and student team. Over the last three decades they have collaborated with literally thousands of community volunteers to monitor water quality by effectively engaging citizen scientists.”

The program, which helped spawn similar volunteer monitoring efforts in other states and some countries, celebrated its 30th anniversary in mid-July with a one-day conference at UNH. Among other things, volunteers learned about advanced monitoring options and toured the Analytical Water Quality Lab and the Center for Freshwater Biology labs at UNH where the samples they gather are sent and analyzed.

What Baker and Haney did 30 years ago was expand upon a Minnesota (the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”) program that used volunteers to make one simple measure of water clarity – the Secchi depth measurement.

Explains Schloss, the UNH scientists came up with protocols specific to volunteers with little training and the resulting program became one of the earlier models for water quality monitoring in which the monitors didn’t simply take samples or measure a single thing. “Our monitors do a suite of basic measurements that give us baseline data and allow us to detect different types of changes in water quality.”

When Schloss began with LLMP in 1986, he added a couple of measurements that allowed better interpretation of the data and incorporated a method of quality assurance “to ensure the accuracy of our data.”

And the data have been accurate indeed. According to Schloss, a comparison of data collected by trained personnel and program volunteers showed there were no significant differences in results. “This was one of the nice things that was clear early on – the quality of our data.”

The high quality of the data is perhaps also related to the fact that volunteers are “invested” in the program personally; they are monitoring lakes they live near, recreate in, and want to see remain healthy. Moreover, Schloss notes, many of the volunteers have been monitoring their lakes for decades (or have passed their duties down to a younger generation) and have a vast wealth of personal and historical knowledge.

“These people really have that knowledge of the lakes and its watershed – they often know more than we do, although they might not believe that,” says Schloss.

Indeed, the monitoring program, which Schloss notes is a form of “participatory citizen science,” has served to “empower” volunteers who often have no background in science or limnology (the study of inland water systems, including lakes, ponds, wetlands, etc.) but who, as individuals, become the “go-to person” in his or her community with respect to questions about lakes and watersheds.

“It’s really our volunteers who are the watch persons of the water quality of a lot of our state’s pristine systems,” Schloss says.

Professor Jim Haney notes that the program this year expanded to include lay monitoring of “cyanobacteria” – potentially toxic blue-green algae that can bloom in lakes and ponds and present serious health hazards to humans. “I believe this is a first for citizen monitoring programs in the country. So,” Haney adds, “the UNH Lakes Lay Monitoring Program continues to push the monitoring envelope!”

A sampling of the Lakes Lay Monitoring Program success stories: