Use of Volunteer Data
A goal for the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Citizen Watershed Monitoring Network (Network) is to provide sound information, collected by volunteers, to resource agency staff and other decision makers, with which they can base future resource protection decisions. The generation of citizen monitoring data must include criteria on how to use the information these data provide. This document provides guidance on the use and quality of volunteer data and a disclaimer for reports containing the data.
It is important to understand the motivation of most volunteer monitors. Many program participants collect information on their watersheds and surface waters because they want to learn more about the health of their system. They are involved because they care about their environment. Volunteer data is collected voluntarily and should not be used for enforcement purposes. These data should only be used for the most positive of intentions.
Volunteer data provides valuable information that might not otherwise be available due to personnel shortages and funding constraints of resource agencies. Below are examples of opportunities to use volunteer data:
- Determine where education, outreach efforts and additional resources are needed - This should be the primary step in reducing a pollution problem. In most situations, especially if the problem is isolated, educating the polluter will create an awareness of the problem and/or change behavior. Monitoring can prioritize locations requiring restoration, assist in program development and justify increased funding in areas of concern.
- Determine the effectiveness of specific programs - Data from volunteer monitoring efforts can track a program's success. The data that is collected over time can identify if water quality has improved.
- Develop a long-term data set - With years of data, it is possible to see trends related to weather, season, human land use, stochastic fluctuations, etc. By establishing a long-term data set, the results may show that the use of best management practices including the creation of more parks and open space is improving the quality of the water draining into the creek. It may also show that improper or poorly planned development is negatively impacting the quality of the surface waters. This may promote alternative land use practices to protect water quality.
- Integrate into local and regional water quality protection programs- Such monitoring can be used for Phase II Compliance (EPA regulations for small communities) in determining effectiveness of actions, watershed protection and planning as well as monitoring the runoff from urban areas and improving citizen participation and involvement as directed by Phase II guidance.
- "Flag" problem areas for further investigation - Citizen data alone is not designed to provide final assessment but to supplement gaps in other data sets. When situations arise in which citizen monitoring identifies a potential water quality problem, the appropriate people and organizations must work together to rectify the situation.
There are many issues to consider when "using" volunteer data. First of all, knowledge of the volunteer program is crucial. Some programs collect data on a weekly basis throughout the year. Other volunteer programs are one-day annual events such as Snapshot Day or First Flush. These annual events are only representative of what is occurring at that particular moment. Annual events are intended to provide information on a large geographic scale, representing what is happening at that moment in time. Sites can be compared to each other and "hotspots" can be identified. These hotspots should then be investigated further. It is also important to realize that there are different types of water quality impacts: sporadic, and continuous. If the impact is sporadic or the contaminant dissipates quickly, a seasonal or single sample will probably not be representative of the true condition. If a sample indicates a problem, then more sampling and investigation are necessary to determine the true nature of the problem.
Regular monitoring by volunteers provides background information that can be used to compare data of similar origin. It provides time trends to compare over different months, seasons, and years. It provides information based on weather; dry season versus wet. It is important, however, to use data in the context of the question being asked. Depending on information needed, volunteers may or may not be appropriate for the project. Data collected by volunteers is most valuable for distinguishing general trends to then be investigated further by the appropriate professionals. A question such as, "How does the flow of the river compare to last year and have there been fluctuations in temperature?" can be answered, with confidence, by volunteer data.
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