Learning the Value of Water with Citizen Science

Watching the river

I grew up in a town with a river flowing through it. A beautiful river, that served voyageurs, communities, and industry for years. A river in which we couldn’t swim because it was so polluted with PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenols) it wasn’t safe. A river you could fish, but not eat from because the fish were full of those same PCB’s (and who knows what else). I learned at a very early age that not all water is equal.

Water has a powerful draw on all of us. It’s essential to our well-being – that is a given. Access to clean water, safe water? Not a given. Not here in the US (See: Flint, MI). Not elsewhere in the world.

Despite my early experiences, I was lucky. The river in our town wasn’t (still isn’t) clean. But I didn’t have to depend on it for washing, drinking or other daily needs. I could overlook it if I chose to and go on with my daily life. Not the case for so many others the world over. I am privileged in ways I don’t appreciate nearly enough.

A Toddler’s Perspective of Water

As a parent, I want my boys to appreciate the natural resources all around them. And water is at the top of that list. I hope they’ll value water enough they feel compelled to protect it and care for it even better than my generation. But deep discussions about the value of water will have to wait.

How wet can we get? Playing with the water table at the museum
How wet can we get? Playing with the water table at the museum

Right now, we’re in toddler world. And the value of water is pretty cut and dry for them. If it’s in a cup, they get to drink it. If it’s in a pool, bathtub, lake or river, they get to splash in it. If it’s on a water table at the museum or in a bucket in the sandbox, it’s a toy just like any other.

But even at this early age, we can have experiences with water that will likely influence them for years to come. And citizen science is a great way for us to have those experiences together.

Water Monitoring with Stream Tracker

Stream Tracker is a water monitoring citizen science project that happens to use the CitSci.org platform to support their data collection. We (the CitSci.org team (see: day job)) had been recently tapped by the project coordinator, Kira, to try participating in Stream Tracker and share our experience with her. Perfect opportunity to have a “water adventure” with the boys. Kira recommended a few nearby streams we could track that were toddler friendly so we planned an outing.

The Stream Tracker program is relatively easy to participate in. You hike to a designated point (or points), take pictures of the stream at those locations, and record whether or not the stream is flowing. Our team of three adults and two toddlers settled on a nearby natural area with a wide gravel path and relatively flat slope. Perfect for toddler ‘hiking’ and ideal for the rest of us when we needed to carry them! We made a point of going out early(ish) in the morning when the boys were at their most rested to better our chances of a good experience for all.

Despite our best planning, the morning did not start out as smoothly as we would have liked. One of the boys (I won’t name names) did NOT want to take a ride in the car. He really, really, really wanted to stay at home and play in the yard. He threw an epic tantrum as we wrangled him into his car seat. And he didn’t stop screaming during the entire 20 min drive to our field site. Awesome.

Our River
“Our” river

Once out of the car and on the trail though? Captain Curious and Inspector Inquiry were in 7th heaven. Just like it often does with adults, the river had the immediate effect of calming them. I think they could have stared at the river from this little bridge for hours (okay, maybe 15 min) if we’d let them.

We hiked to our first point pretty quickly. While two of us recorded the data, the other served the boys a snack. Then, we got a bonus wildlife experience when three mule deer (one in velvet!) went bounding through the field directly across from us. After snack, we hiked to the second point (about a 10 min hike at toddler speed) and recorded our second set of data. By that point, the boys were starting to wear out so we turned around and headed back down the trail, taking turns carrying the boys for short intervals when they needed breaks from the hiking.

Stream Selfie

Stream Selfie is another citizen science project about, you guessed it, streams, that simply involves taking a picture of yourself in front of a stream of your choice. It is by far the easiest of any citizen science project I’ve participated in and it collects valuable information about stream flow, among other things. The project is organized by the Isaak Walton League of America and SciStarter (for whom I also work). It was a no brainer for us to participate in that project too while we were out at the stream so at the second site we took our selfie. Easy, peasy.

Stream Selfie! What a great looking bunch
Stream Selfie! What a great looking bunch 🙂

Clean Water is a Privilege

 “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” – Baba Dioum

Instilling an understanding of the value of water in my kids is a privilege and one that I take very seriously. Too many kids the world over learn the value of water the hard way, by not having access to clean water for their basic needs, by getting sick from drinking contaminated water because it is the only water they have.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You, me, my family, your family, we can change that reality. We can be better stewards of the resources we have access to. And citizen science offers seemingly endless opportunities to make a difference and have fun too!

Bonus nature spotting! Mule deer by the stream
Bonus nature spotting! Mule deer by the stream

Where to Find Water Monitoring Citizen Science Projects

Stream Tracker (Colorado only) and Stream Selfie (global) are just two of many, many water focused citizen science projects you can try. Find a project to participate in, take your family and friends and make it an adventure! You’ll be making memories, teaching your kids (or reminding yourself of) the value of water, and making the world a better place all at the same time. It doesn’t get much better than that.

You can find more water monitoring citizen science projects via the CitSci.org and SciStarter platforms or via any web browser by searching “water, citizen science, and your state or city name”.

What does water mean to you? How do you steward your water resources? I’m always looking for new ideas. Please share yours in the comments below!

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