Stewards of the Stream: When Citizen Science Meets Water Quality

By September 25th, 2014 at 5:42 am | Comment

Keep track of water quality and learn about environmental stewardship with Stream Team.

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From left: Joshua Caditz, Amanda Ebling and Spencer Towle collect samples at the Cate School bioswale.

From left: Joshua Caditz, Amanda Ebling and Spencer Towle collect samples at the Cate School bioswale.

Spencer Towle is a senior at Cate School in Carpinteria. As we walk down to a bioswale on the campus, this San Francisco native with a head of unruly brown hair describes his first year as a member of the Cate School Stream Team, “A senior took us through all the instruments and showed us how to work them, and what we were sampling for. That made Stream Team a lot more real for me. We weren’t just dipping instruments into the water and reading the numbers—I really learned the purpose behind it.”

Joshua Caditz, an environmental lawyer turned science teacher, leads the group and is proud of his band of water-monitoring geeks. “The students for the most part run this watershed monitoring project with the guidance and assistance of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, and they’re doing an outstanding job. We currently manage the entire watershed except for the summer when Channelkeeper sends in a few interns to take over.” Caditz founded the Cate Stream Team in 2010 with the two-fold objective of conducting a long-term study of water quality in the Carpinteria watershed, and engaging students in a combination of field and laboratory work. He lodged the program under the oversight of the non-profit group Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper operates similar programs to keep tabs on water quality in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Goleta. Jenna Driscoll, Watershed and Marine Program Associate at Santa Barbara Channelkeeper says, “It’s really rewarding to see people connecting with their watershed. When I first started working for Channelkeeper I was shocked to learn how many streams there are in our area. Santa Barbara Channelkeeper is a “watchdog” organization. Often times government agencies do not have the resources to do all the monitoring that they are mandated to do by law. When this is the case, Channelkeeper steps in to fill the monitoring gap.”

Data collected by the team is used by government agencies to inform pollution prevention programs and water resource management decisions. “We’ve identified numerous pollution hot spots and sources through Stream Team sampling, and have worked cooperatively with the relevant government agencies to get these problems cleaned up,” says Driscoll. The students repeatedly test water samples for signs of contamination, relying on indicator species like E. coli, and they annotate their observations to create a data-snapshot of the local watershed.

From Left : Pharibe Pope, Amanda Ebling and Spencer Towle begin to process the samples in the lab.

From Left : Pharibe Pope, Amanda Ebling and Spencer Towle begin to process the samples in the lab.

An important part of the program for Caditz is the opportunity for his students to fulfill what amounts to Cate School’s mission—service and the teaching of leadership. He says, “ I was looking for an opportunity for students to do meaningful science that would contribute to their community, getting them out and about, and getting them involved in an environmental issue.” That sounds like another definition for citizen science. Caditz continues, “Developing student leadership was also important. The first year I did everything, but over time I gradually transferred responsibility to the students—as the program matured, seniors began taking control, and they’re now coaching all newcomers.” In the process the team has helped Santa Barbara Channelkeeper achieve an important objective—establish a comprehensive baseline of ambient water quality for the Carpinteria watershed—the initial goal is to span a decade and the program has been running for a little over five years.

Volunteers receive training in scientifically-sound water sampling techniques, gain knowledge in ecology, chemistry, hydrology, and environmental policy, and learn about the specific water quality issues that are impacting their watershed as well as solutions to address those impacts. Driscoll notes, “Our volunteers become watershed stewards and educate their peers about local water quality issues, causing a ripple effect that creates heightened environmental awareness, more environmentally conscious practices and behaviors, and support for stronger environmental policies, all of which contribute to a stronger and healthier community.” To date, Channelkeeper has trained over 1,000 Stream Team volunteers.

Pharibe Pope, a senior from Baltimore and a student leader in the group says, “Once a month, usually on Saturdays, we split up into two teams and visit seven sites around Carpinteria to take our water samples. We eat pizza, drive home and complete the lab work over the following two days.”

Another senior, Amanda Ebling is soft spoken but purposeful as she displays the leadership she is learning when she says, “Last year I was a co-head, and we were transitioning in learning how to organize the test dates, getting other students to participate, do all the calibrations of the meters, and even arrange the cars and drivers. And this year it’s all up to us.” Caditz will be melting into the background as his students take the lead.

This water quality citizen science program is growing up with about 10 Cate students every year. Along with purposeful science and pollution prevention efforts, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper is fostering environmental stewardship, while Cate School nurtures leadership. This seems to be an alchemy from which both crowdsourced science and young lives are bubbling—the perfect way to celebrate World Water Monitoring Day.

Image credits:
Ian Vorster


Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com.

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