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Water: Monitoring & Assessment

Involvement of Volunteers in Wetland Monitoring

United States
Environmental Protection
Office of Water
Office of Wetlands, Oceans
and Watersheds (4502-F)
July 1998

Wetland Bioassessment Fact Sheet 9

Facts About Volunteer, Water Quality Monitoring Programs
  • There are more than 500 volunteer monitoring programs nationwide evaluating the water quality of wetlands, rivers, lakes, estuaries, and other waterbodies.
  • More than 340,000 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds participate.

The involvement of volunteers in ecological monitoring programs is a realistic, cost-effective, and beneficial way to obtain important information which might otherwise be unavailable due to lack of resources at government agencies. Initiatives such as Riverwatch, Adopt-a-Stream, and the Izaak Walton League's Save-Our-Streams program have been highly successful in maintaining groups of interested volunteers as well as in yielding data useful to scientists, planners, and concerned citizens. Although many programs aim to assess the health of streams and lakes, relatively few volunteer programs have attempted to monitor and document the biological condition or functional values of wetlands. The diversity of wetland types can also complicate efforts to monitor wetlands. It is nevertheless feasible to use volunteers to help collect valuable data on wetlands, such as water levels, vegetation types, water quality, and composition of plant and animal assemblages. It is also feasible for volunteers to monitor specific plants or animals, such as non-native weeds or amphibians.

Volunteer Monitoring Fosters a Sense of Stewardship

Volunteer monitoring programs empower citizens to become more active stewards of wetlands in their communities. Volunteer programs provide an opportunity for land owners, children, and other community members to become more familiar with the functions and values of wetlands in their watershed as well as the pressures placed on these resources. Informed citizens can play a key role in encouraging land and water stewardship in all sectors of society, from industry to private homeowners, and from housing developers to municipal sewage treatment managers.

Volunteer Monitoring Provides Valuable Data

In 1995, elementary school students in Minnesota discovered frogs with malformations. They captured the Nation's attention and professionals and other volunteers have subsequently found malformed amphibians across the Great Lakes region and northern New England.

In 1995, elementary school students in Minnesota discovered frogs with malformations. They captured the Nation's attention and professionals and other volunteers have subsequently found malformed amphibians across the Great Lakes region and northern New England. Volunteer monitoring programs can provide data for federal, state, tribal, and local water quality agencies and private organizations. Although these data are generally not as rigorous as data collected by trained professionals, organizations can use these data to screen areas that otherwise may not be assessed. If the volunteers spot warning signs, they can alert professionals to the problem, and the professionals can follow up with more detailed assessments.

EPA Volunteer Monitoring Web Site

EPA Wetland Volunteer Monitoring Site

Case Studies

Volunteers can monitor wetlands for a variety of objectives. The following four case studies illustrate different objectives for volunteer monitoring.

Keys to a Successful Program
  • Strong links between volunteers, government agencies, private organizations, and technical experts.
  • Standardized methods.
  • Simple instructions.
  • Quality assurance protocols.
  • Monitoring plan based on answering specific questions and objectives.
  • Adequate trainer/volunteer ratios.
  • Permission to access wetlands.

Case Study 1: Monitoring Mitigation Sites

The Maryland Department of the Environment is implementing a citizen-based program to monitor nontidal mitigation wetlands. The project has developed a monitoring manual and training seminars. Volunteers are trained to collect baseline data on vegetation density and groundwater elevations on state-developed programmatic wetland mitigation sites. Information gathered from this study provides resource managers with quantitative, site-specific data for direct comparison with established performance standards. [Contact: Denise Clearwater, (410) 631-8094]

Case Study 2: Monitoring Coastal Wetlands

In 1995-1996, Save-the-Bay, in partnership with the EPA Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, developed a method for characterizing the health of tidal and formerly tidal coastal marshes. Through Save-the-Bay's Habitat Protection and Restoration Program, over 100 trained volunteers have participated in the evaluation of marshes in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Nearly 1,885 acres (or 60%) of Narragansett Bay's marshes have been evaluated by volunteers and reviewed by Save-the-Bay's staff. There is a standard QA/QC protocol for all such evaluations. Several of the monitoring sites are on golf courses, and cooperation with these golf courses has been a carefully orchestrated part of the marsh monitoring effort. [Contact: Andy Lipsky, (401) 272-3540.]

Case Study 3: Incorporating Monitoring into Educational Programs

Caddo Lake Institute (Project WET Texas) uses Caddo Lake, a large, shallow, cypress-dominated wetland, as a living laboratory for wetland science training. The institute targets teachers in local colleges, universities, and public schools with the intention of getting students involved in a long-term commitment to environmental research. Groups from five different high schools and six colleges associated with the institute currently monitor 23 sites on Caddo Lake. Other sites in the upper watershed, including constructed wetlands, are monitored as well. [Contact: Sara Kneipp, (903) 938-3545]

Case Study 4: Training Volunteers to Conduct Biological Assessments

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is training volunteers to assess the biological integrity of wetlands in a pilot project. The volunteers learn sampling methods, quality assurance protocols, and how to identify plants, insects, and other animals living in the wetlands. Initial results indicate that the volunteer assessments, although not as rigorous as the professional assessments, provide repeatable results that are consistent with the more detailed, professional assessments. [Contact: Judy Helgen, (612) 296-7240]


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