Volunteers monitor Minnesota's waters

(This  article was published in the March, 2009, Facets of Freshwater, the Freshwater Society’s newsletter. The newsletter is available at www.freshwater.org.)

Last year, on about 1,500 lakes across Minnesota, volunteers leaned over the side of their boats and lowered a white metal disk into the water, carefully measuring how deep the disk descended until it vanished from view.

In addition, the volunteers filled out a checklist of subjective judgments about the lake water: Was it crystal clear? Was there floating scum or dead fish in the water? Did the water look inviting for swimming or boating? Or was there such heavy algae growth that any enjoyment of the lake was impossible?

Other volunteers in other places lowered buckets into rivers to collect water samples, filled their home refrigerators or freezers with small bottles of river and lake water that would later be analyzed to determine its nitrogen and phosphorus content and waded into wetlands to collect dragonflies, leeches and beetles.

Thirty-five years ago, Minnesota began one of the first volunteer water quality monitoring program in the country. That effort, the Citizen Lake Monitoring Program, remains one of the largest such programs in the country. And it has now been joined by dozens of other lake, river and wetland monitoring efforts that encourage volunteers to get their feet and hands wet in the pursuit of clean, healthy water.

The programs have two major goals.

First, there is the science. The thousands of volunteers take far more water clarity readings and collect far more water samples than the full-time scientists and technicians employed by governmental bodies, such as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and local soil and water boards, ever could handle.

A recent surge in the use of volunteers to collect water samples has helped the PCA speed up a slow process aimed at assessing the water quality in more than 12,000 lakes and about 105,000 miles of streams and rivers every 10 years. Big increases in water quality spending approved by the Legislature in recent years paid for lab analysis of the samples.

The low-tech Secchi Disk readings made by those volunteers leaning over the sides of their canoes and pontoon boats also help make possible a much higher-tech monitoring system. The clarity readings logged by the volunteers are used to calibrate images sent to Earth by satellites that pass over Minnesota.

As important as the scientific data, is the direct interest in water quality and the commitment to preserving it that the volunteer activity fosters in the volunteers.

“There’s value beyond the value of the data that’s collected in the Citizen Lake Monitoring Program, said Johanna Schussler, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s coordinator of the program. “These are the people who support water quality initiatives. These are the people who volunteer, who write letters.”

And what do the volunteers get out of participating in the various programs?

For Gordon Prickett, a former mining engineer who joined the Citizen Lake Monitoring Program in 1997, soon after he bought his retirement home on the north side of Nord Lake in Aitkin County, the question is an easy one.

“I see myself as a steward here,” Prickett. “The longer we live here, the more I’m interested in conservation and preservation. I’m interested in preserving the quality of the lake for future generations, as well as my own.”

Minnesota’s first volunteer water-quality program was begun in 1973 by a University of Minnesota professor, Joe Shapiro. The MPCA assumed responsibility for the program in 1978.

That is the Citizen Lake Monitoring Project that Schussler coordinates. Last year, it had 1,260 volunteers who tested water quality at 1,700 sites on about 1,200 lakes. From the beginning, the program has relied on a simple device, the Secchi Disk, to measure clarity, a basic indicator of water quality, especially the level of algae present in a lake.

The Secchi disk – named after Pietro Angelo Secchi, a 19 th Century Jesuit astronomer who developed the device to measure the transparency of oceans and lakes — is a white, or sometimes black-and-white, metal disk, about the size of a salad plate that is attached to a cord marked off in feet or meters.

Volunteers are instructed to lower the Secchi disk into the lake and note when it disappears from view. They then raise the disk a bit until it is again just visible, note that depth and then average the two readings. The volunteers also fill out a questionnaire rating the lake’s general appearance on a scale that ranges from “crystal clear” to “massive floating scums…foul odor or fish kill.”

The volunteers are asked to take their readings on their appointed lakes eight to 10 times a summer, preferably weekly from June through September.

Typically, the clarity readings the volunteers record with the Secchi disks are lowest in mid-summer, when algae growth is the greatest. The Secchi readings are posted each year in the MPCA’s Environmental Data Access data base.

In addition to the basic Secchi disk monitoring, the MPCA funds four other citizen monitoring programs:

  • A sub-set of the basic Secchi disk monitoring program that is specifically tailored for canoeists visiting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. Canoeists receive a light-weight Secchi disk with a little mesh bag on the bottom of it that they weight down with rocks.
  • A Citizen Stream Monitoring Program, begun in 1988, that last year sent about 500 volunteers to about 800 locations on rivers and streams throughout Minnesota. The volunteers generally use a bucket to take a sample of water and then measure its clarity. But, instead of a Secchi disk, they use a transparency tube. That’s a clear tube with a centimeter scale printed on it that the volunteers fill with river or stream water. Then they let water run out of valve on the bottom until they can see a symbol printed on the base of the tube.

The river and stream monitors are asked to visit their sampling stations once a week, from April through September, and after heavy rains. The clarity readings they make with their transparency tubes are used by the MPCA to estimate the level of turbidity caused by suspended solids – sediment, organic material and algae –in the water.

  • A relatively new lake monitoring effort, called the Advanced Citizen Lake Monitoring Program, in which volunteers who have demonstrated a commitment to monitoring by taking Secchi readings for two years, receive additional training and more-sophisticated equipment and are asked to undertake expanded testing on selected lakes.

In that program, the volunteers take Secchi readings and note their observations of water conditions. In addition, they use a probe and a hand-held meter to measure the temperature of the water and the level of oxygen dissolved in it. Then they take a 2-liter sample of lake water and pour off some of the sample into a small bottle whose contents later will be analyzed at a state laboratory to determine how much phosphorus and nitrogen it contains.

Later, onshore, the volunteers pump more of the lake water through a filter and then place the filter in a petri dish, which they are asked to store in their home refrigerators until the samples are delivered to a lab. Analysis of the filter tells how much chlorophyll was in the water, a measure of algae.

  • An extensive series of partnerships in which the MPCA provides up to $2 million a year to about 40 public and private organizations – soil and water conservation districts, watershed districts, counties, college and universities and associations of lakeshore owners — to recruit volunteers, and in some cases assign paid staff members, to collect data on lakes and rivers and to contract with private labs to analyze samples.

That testing yields data on clarity, E-coli bacteria, chloride, ammonia, suspended solids, phosphorus, nitrogen and chlorophyll. The PCA contracts with Minnesota Waters, a nonprofit group, to train participants in that program.

In addition to the MPCA’s water monitoring program, the Metropolitan Council has had an extensive lake monitoring program for more than 25 years. That program now tests water quality in about 200 lakes across the seven-county metro area. The council works with about 35 local partners – cities, counties and watershed districts — to recruit, train and supervise volunteers.

The local partners provide the equipment and pay for laboratory analysis. The volunteers conduct Secchi readings and collect samples in a monitoring procedure that is similar to the Pollution Control Agency’s advanced monitoring.

The Met Council posts the test results in its electronic Environmental Management System, and the lakes are graded each year – A through F – based on their average readings for clarity and phosphorus and chlorophyll content.

Volunteers also do extensive environmental monitoring in wetlands in two metro counties: Dakota and Hennepin. Participating cities in the two counties pay the cost of the monitoring, and the MPCA provides training.

That project, called the Wetland Health Evaluation Program, sends volunteers into wetlands in June and July.

In June, the volunteers, working in teams of five to 20 people, set bottle traps and use dip nets to capture macro-invertebrate organisms such as dragonflies, mayflies, leeches, snails and beetles. They classify, inventory and record the populations they find.

In July, the volunteers re-visit the wetlands, mark off 100-square-meter plots and inventory the plant species there.

All the data on the invertebrates and the plants are converted into two indices of biological integrity. Each wetland that is monitored is rated on a three-point scale – poor, moderate, excellent – for both macro-invertebrates and vegetation.

In Dakota County, about 120 volunteers monitored 32 wetlands last year. In Hennepin, about 80 volunteers monitored 32 wetlands.

Helen Goeden of Apple Valley and her husband, Colin Brownlow, and their children have been volunteering in the program since about 2000. Goeden estimated she spent about 25 hours, spread across seven or eight evenings, working in the program last summer.

Goeden, a Minnesota Health Department research scientist who spends her working hours developing standards for ground water purity, said she chooses to devote part of her free time to the wetlands monitoring because it allows her to share her passion for the environment with her kids and because she thinks all types of water are under-appreciated.

“People treat water like it’s free, but it’s probably the most precious resource we have,” she said.

  • The MPCA’s Citizen Lake Monitoring Program has volunteers testing clarity on about one-tenth of Minnesota’s lakes. The program particularly needs volunteers who live in northern Minnesota or regularly visit cabins there. The program also seeks canoeists heading to the Boundary Waters. The MPCA has information and an application on its web site at:www.pca.state.mn.us/water/clmp.html.  Email the program coordinator at clmp@pca.state.mn.us or call 800-657-3864.
  • You may be able to join one of the organizations, such as watershed districts and lake associations, receiving grants from the MPCA to monitor lakes and streams. Email Ron Schwartz at ronald.schwartz@state.mn.us or call 651-757-2708. Or you can contact Courtney Kowalczak at Minnesota Waters. Email courtneyk@minnesotawaters.org or call 218-343-2180.
  • If you live in the Twin Cities, you may be able to join one of the monitoring programs run by cities and watershed districts in partnership with the Metropolitan Council. Participation is limited by the budgets of the partners. Contact Brian Johnson at brian.johnson@metc.state.mn.us or call 651-602-8743.
  • There are many other water monitoring programs that use student and adult volunteers. A partial list, with links to some of the programs, is part of an MPCA report to the Legislature. The report, available on the MPCA web site, is titled “Citizen Monitoring of Surface Water Quality.”