Community-Based Water Monitoring

Part of the Knowing Our Waters Project

By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement

A groundswell of community-based water monitoring efforts has emerged in recent years due to threats posed by extraction industries in the Marcellus Shale. While some groups are fairly new additions to the field of water monitoring, others have worked on watershed assessment projects for decades, dealing with issues related to coal mining, agricultural runoff, acid rain, and nonpoint sources of pollution. However, many watershed scientists and regulators fail to recognize the meaningfully contributions this community can make to public discussions on the health of our natural resources.

They are all ‘civil society’ programs, doing watershed science without the legitimacy awarded to institutions with regulatory authority.

Throughout this series of articles we use the term “community-based monitoring” to denote programs that are supported by funds from private donations, philanthropic foundations, and university outreach centers. Nonprofit conservation organizations, watershed associations, volunteers and some local government agencies might run these programs. An important distinction between this kind of monitoring and those run by environmental protection agencies is that they are all “civil society” programs, doing watershed science without the legitimacy awarded to institutions with regulatory authority.

As part of a new FracTracker effort utilizing rich-media storytelling to communicate the impacts of oil and gas extraction, the “Knowing Our Waters” project will focus on the efforts of community-based water monitoring programs throughout Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio. In the coming year, this project will feature articles, resource pages, and custom maps to highlight the important work that watershed monitoring groups do in bringing attention to the risks that extraction industries pose to our watersheds. In this introductory article, we will first dig deeper into where community-based water monitoring in the Marcellus Shale originated – answering questions such as: Who makes up this vibrant field? What do these groups hopes to accomplish? And, How is their work supported?

History of Water Monitoring in the U.S.

Community-based water monitoring in the United States can be traced as far back as the 1920s, but coordinated campaigns addressing water pollution really only emerged in the 1960s. In the wake of the environmental movement, numerous citizen-initiated water protection groups began forming across the country (Ward, 1996). One of the most prominent examples is the Izaak Walton League of America’s “Save Our Streams” program established in 1969. With the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972, states were mandated to assess the health of their watersheds, but lacked the basic infrastructure to comply with annual federal report requirements.

From the “Documerica” Project, sponsored from 1972-1977 by the US Environmental Protection Agency to “photographically document subjects of environmental concern.”

As states sought effective ways to monitor vast regions of unclassified watersheds – particularly those with known impacts from legacy industries, such as coal mining – funding and logistical support for volunteer water monitoring increased substantially throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Pfeffer & Waganet, 2007).

One legacy of these gains can be seen in the many watershed protection programs that exist in Pennsylvania that were established by the state’s “Growing Greener” granting program, established in 1999. Growing Greener continues to provide money to nonprofit watershed associations, as well as to the Consortium for Scientific Assistance to Watersheds (C-SAW), which provides training and technical assistance to watershed groups. In addition to funding programs, the PA Department of Environmental Protection supported community-based monitoring directly through their Citizens’ Volunteer Monitoring Program (CVMP) (Wilson, 2002). Similar programs to Growing Greener and CVMP can be found in West Virginia, New York, Ohio, and Maryland.

However, community-based water monitoring programs have historically struggled in retaining long-term resources and in establishing legitimacy amongst professional watershed scientists. For example, a 2004 national study found that, despite growing enthusiasm for volunteer monitoring, few states actually used volunteer-collected data in management and oversight programs (Nerbonne & Nelson, 2004). Furthermore, funding for community-based monitoring has been in steady decline since the 2000s due to shrinking budgets within government agencies that might have otherwise supported these programs.

The PA DEP, for instance, cancelled the CVMP in 2009 – a program that had provided support to more than 11,000 volunteers over its lifetime (PALMS, 2010). Cuts to programming in the past decade can also be credited to lukewarm support for “non-professional” science at a time when regulatory agencies increasingly find themselves embattled in political debates about climate change, resource extraction, and the role of government in limiting polluting industries.

  • The majority of community-based water monitoring occurs in the headwaters of large watersheds where extraction industries are most active, but also where monitoring by environmental protection agencies is historically absent.

Monitoring for Energy Extraction Impacts

Oil and gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale introduces new challenges to understanding watershed health. Chemical spills at drilling sites, damage to well casings, trucking accidents, and other potential sources of pollution can find their way into nearby streams, rivers, and lakes. In many instances the effects of these impacts remain unknown due to the secrecy of industrial practices and inadequate scientific research. A growing number of controversial but disputed water contamination events – such as the Dunkard Creek fish kill in 2009, drinking water contamination in Dimock PA, and excessive bromides in Pittsburgh’s municipal water supplies – have caused many local residents and environmental advocacy groups to be concerned about the inadequacy of government oversight, however. One outcome of these concerns is a surge in new surface water monitoring efforts emerging across Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Maryland and Ohio.

Community-based water monitoring in the Marcellus Shale has since developed to serve two primary purposes. The first is to collect “baseline” water quality data where little is known about current water conditions. Baseline data is critical to understanding long-term impacts, but is also a necessary guage for determining more immediate abnormal conditions, such as a spike in conductivity readings that might indicate excessive brine from hydraulic fracturing wastewater.

The second objective of monitoring groups is to work as “first responders” for pollution events. Unlike emergency responders in regulatory agencies who may take 24 hours or more to respond to a pollution complaint, volunteers and watershed specialists at local organizations can quickly collect water samples for analysis before contaminants wash down stream.

2012 Unassessed Waters

A 2012 map from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission with “unassessed waters” marked in red.

The majority of community-based water monitoring occurs in the headwaters of large watersheds where extraction industries are most active, but also where monitoring by environmental protection agencies is historically absent. For instance, the Susquehanna River Basin Commissions (SRBC) manages more than 60 automated monitoring stations as part of their Remote Water Quality Monitoring Network. But nearly all of these are installed at the confluence of larger water bodies. Meanwhile, of nearly 62,000 streams in Pennsylvania, the Fish and Boat Commission’s Unassessed Waters program estimates that less than a quarter of these have been properly assessed for water quality. Community-based water monitoring may therefore be more adaptive to the rapidly changing landscape of where extraction industries operate.

Assembling New Resources

The foundational strength of many of these programs comes from the rigorous training programs, vetted monitoring protocols, and data management strategies put in place by nonprofit technical service providers and academic research centers. One of these service providers is the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM) at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. ALLARM has a long history within the region’s water monitoring community since it began offering training support in 1986. At the request of community groups concerned about gas extraction, ALLARM developed a set of monitoring protocols in 2009 with watershed scientists and consultants in regulatory agencies. Since 2010, ALLARM has conducted more than 40 training sessions throughout Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Maryland.

A water monitoring training session, where volunteers learn about watershed science and learn sampling protocols (photo courtesy of ALLARM).

Groups trained by ALLARM and other service providers typically monitor conductivity, temperature, water depth, and the presence of radionuclides associated with shale formations such as barium and strontium. These core indicators are basic signatures of changes in water quality. But other groups also monitor for pH, dissolved oxygen, metals, chlorides and many other parameters that might point to specific causes of watershed impacts. More information on monitoring protocols, quality assurance procedures, and how monitoring groups test their samples in certified laboratories, is available on the Knowing Our Waters “Guide to Water Monitoring Protocols” page.

Other organizations that offer training and support services include the Community Science Institute, which supports volunteers monitoring throughout the Southern Tier of NY; Trout Unlimited, with a vast network of monitoring groups across New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia; and the Maryland’s Marcellus Monitoring Coalition. A full list of groups can be found on the Knowing Our Waters “Monitoring Organizations by State” resource page.

In addition to service providers that offer training and equipment, other organizations are developing databases and mapping tools to assist the water monitoring community. One project is Pennsylvania State University’s “Shale Network” which is built on an open source HydroDesktop GIS platform (used by a national network of water science researchers). Shale Network was first introduced in 2011 to collates datasets and synthesize data into useful knowledge. A second project is the QUEST Data Management Tool, developed by the WVU Water Research Institute, as part of their larger Three Rivers Quest monitoring program. These projects have become valuable resources for managing, analyzing, and communicating findings derived from water monitoring data.

  • By developing protocols, establishing databases, and generating genuinely new knowledge about our watersheds, the water monitoring community may indeed alter the balance of power in how we protect natural resources.

Building Expertise, Finding Legitimacy

What fully explains the exponential growth of community-based water monitoring in response to Marcellus Shale gas development is presently a matter of great interest to capacity building organizations and academic researchers alike (Stedman et al., 2009; Kinchy & Perry, 2012; Kinchy et al. 2014; Jalbert et al., 2014). Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the field has matured from a dispersed collection of efforts just a few years ago into an extensive grassroots network of motivated, well trained, and highly educated organizations today.

Overdevest and Mayer (2007), two researcher who have studied the history of community-based monitoring in the US, note, “grassroots organizations are altering the balance of power between activists, state regulators, and private firms based on their ability to contest official accounts of environmental quality.”

However, many residents in threatened communities are not aware of the great strides the Marcellus Shale water monitoring community has made in recent years to assemble resources. By developing protocols, establishing databases, and generating genuinely new knowledge about our watersheds, the water monitoring community may indeed alter the balance of power in how we protect natural resources.

The Knowing Our Waters project is therefore, first and foremost, intended to overcome challenges of recognition and legitimacy, in hopes that by doing so we can open doors to developing more equitable partnerships between concerned citizens, watershed scientist, and regulatory institutions.


Jalbert, K., Kinchy, A. J., & Perry, S. (2014). Civil Society Research and Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Development: Results of a Survey of Volunteer Water Monitoring Organizations. Special issue: exploring the impacts of Marcellus shale development. Ed. Beth Kinne and Michael Finewood. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. 4(1):78-86.

Kinchy, A. J., & Perry, S. L. (2012). Can Volunteers Pick Up the Slack? Efforts to Remedy Knowledge Gaps About the Watershed Impacts of Marcellus Shale Gas Development. Duke Envtl. L. & Pol’y F., 22, 303-385.2012 Perry, Simona L. 2012. “Development, Land Use, and Collective Trauma: The Marcellus Shale Gas Boom in Rural Pennsylvania.” Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment. 34 (1): 81–92

Kinchy, A. J., Jalbert, K., & Lyons, J. (2014). What is Volunteer Water Monitoring Good For? Fracking and the Plural Logics of Participatory Science. Special issue: Fields of Knowledge: Science, Politics, and Publics in the Neoliberal Age. Ed. Scott Frickel and David Hess. Political Power and Social Theory. (27): 259-289.

Nerbonne, J. F., & Nelson, K. C. (2008). Volunteer macroinvertebrate monitoring: Tensions among group goals, data quality, and outcomes. Environmental Management, 42(3): 470-479.

Overdevest, C., & Mayer, B. (2007). Harnessing the power of information through community monitoring: Insights from social science. Texas Law Review.(86):1493-1526.

PALMS. (2010). What’s Wet Summer 2010. Official Newsletter of the Pennsylvania Lake Management Society. Summer edition.

Pfeffer, M., & Wagenet, L. P. (2007). Volunteer environmental monitoring, knowledge creation and citizen-scientist interaction. In Sage handbook on environment and society (pp. 235-249). London: Sage.

Stedman, R., Lee, B., Brasier, K., Weigle, J., & Higdon, F. (2009). Cleaning up Water? Or Building Rural Community? Community Watershed Organizations in Pennsylvania. Rural Sociology. 74(2):178-200.

Ward, R. C. (1996). Water quality monitoring: Where’s the beef? Water Resources Bulletin of the American Water Resources Association, 32(4):673-680.

Wilson, D. (2002). Community based water monitoring and beyond, a case study: Pennsylvania. In Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation. Pp. 1025-1036.

For more information, please contact Kirk Jalbert: