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.