Monitor the quality and quantity of Wisconsin’s streams with Water Action Volunteers.
Interested in water monitoring projects? We’ve got you covered!
Human uses of the land impact the quality and quantity of waters in local streams, which in turn, can affect our recreational activities such as fishing, boating and swimming, and our drinking water quality. If we understand where, how and to what extent our streams are impacted, we can take steps to protect and improve them.
Citizen scientists in Wisconsin’s Water Action Volunteers (WAV) program assess the quality and quantity of water in their local streams. Their monitoring helps natural resource professionals understand the extent of non-point pollution in the state. Non-point pollution comes from sources across the landscape and is the primary source of pollution in Wisconsin’s (and our nation’s) waters. It includes sediment and nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which enter streams from agricultural and urban lands. Volunteer monitors also help track streamflow over time, since urban and agricultural land uses can significantly increase or decrease flows. For example, in urban areas, increased impervious surfaces result in less infiltration of rainwater into the ground and change baseflows and stormwater runoff. Also, where there is groundwater pumping, streamflow can be drastically reduced, which can endanger fish and other aquatic life.
WAV, sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) and the University of Wisconsin-Extension, has three levels of participation: Introductory; Status and Trends; and Special Projects Monitoring. Anyone interested in learning more about his or her local stream is encouraged to participate. Although methods are targeted towards adults and middle and high school students, younger children can participate in many of the activities with assistance. Everyone must begin with introductory monitoring unless they have previous experience. Each spring, trainings are held in various locations in Wisconsin for new volunteers to learn monitoring methods. The time commitment is one hour per month from May through October for Introductory and Status and Trends monitoring, while the time commitment varies for adults who participate in Special Project Monitoring. Some Special Project volunteers monitor for just a few minutes per month to assess phosphorus. Others monitor year around, sometimes several times per month, to assess impacts of road salting on streams. Those interested in joining WAV can visit the program website to find contacts and a calendar of upcoming events.
For teachers interested in incorporating stream monitoring into their activities, WAV’s methods have been assimilated into a middle and high school curriculum, called Exploring Streams. It can be downloaded from the program website. An added bonus is that the activities in Exploring Streams are applicable no matter where in the world you are located!
Each year since its inception in 1996, volunteers have monitored more and more stream sites, reaching 565 sites in 2013. Volunteers enter their data into an online database, and results are accessible to anyone with web access. Their efforts have helped to identify 17 streams that are not meeting water quality standards for chloride. In addition, they have monitored more than 200 stream sites to assess if phosphorus levels are safe. WDNR staff will analyze their results to determine if stream segments should be listed as impaired due to phosphorus. If they are listed, additional financial and professional resources will likely be accessible to local communities to help clean them up.
An additional success of the WAV program is that participants increase their personal and community networks and become civically engaged in natural resources issues. A 2003 study of new and experienced WAV volunteers found that after only an average of 18 months, experienced volunteers had larger personal networks, and more frequently engaged in civic activities related to natural resources . This study was repeated in 2011 and similar results were found.
Recently, signs were placed at 19 long-term stream monitoring sites located in parks and along trails. The signs allow passers-by to learn about watersheds, non-point pollution and how volunteers monitor stream health. Tours of these sites allow visitors to see the beauty of these streams and to compare land use alongside them.
The Water Action Volunteers program is engaging citizen scientists across Wisconsin to assess streams. As natural resource managers face increased budgetary shortfalls, citizens are stepping up to assist in building a picture of watershed health. The ultimate goal is to improve and protect the water quality and quantity in Wisconsin, as well as in the Mississippi River, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan Watersheds, for present and future generations.
 Overdevest, C., C. Huyck Orr, and K. Stepenuck. 2004. Volunteer Stream Monitoring and Local Participation in Natural Resource Issues. Human Ecology Review. 11(2): 177-185.
Kris Stepenuck is the Water Action Volunteers Stream Monitoring Program Director.