It takes a lot of data to protect and restore the 64,000 square-mile region we know as the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The vast system includes 11,684 miles of shoreline, 150 major rivers and streams and 100,000 smaller tributaries. To figure out how to best plan for and implement restoration work that will impact not only the Chesapeake Bay, but all of its tributaries, we need to understand the health of all the regions of the watershed and how they interact with one another. This is a challenge that calls for rigorous water quality monitoring, and lots of it.
Environmental groups have always been aided by volunteers helping to collect water quality samples in the myriad waterways, but in the past, there was not always a clear way for researchers to access that data and large parts of the watershed were not monitored. In 2015, the Chesapeake Bay Program and four partners that include the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Izaak Walton League of America, Dickinson College’s Alliance for Aquatic Resources Monitoring and University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science formed the Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative (CMC), an entity whose purpose is to integrate volunteer collected data into the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership.
Now, after six years of work, the CMC has built a world-class framework for supporting and growing volunteer-based monitoring programs and connected this data to federal and state partners to give us a more holistic understanding of the watershed. The effort has led to hundreds of thousands of data points collected from across the watershed; the development of a single, accessible data source (Chesapeake Data Explorer); and the incorporation of countless volunteers who are invaluable participants in Bay restoration.
Connecting a watershed’s-worth of volunteers
After forming in 2015, the CMC spent its first two-and-a-half years laying the foundation for its future volunteer efforts—setting up standard operating procedures, determining quality assurance project plans and finding established monitoring groups to collaborate with. With these pieces in place, the team designed a strategy to increase volunteer monitoring efforts that complemented the existing programs in each jurisdiction of the watershed. For these existing monitoring programs, the CMC would work with program coordinators to incorporate their data, provide resources and equipment where needed, and guide them through any necessary enhancements to their process. If a watershed organization or local group didn’t have a water quality monitoring program, the CMC would help them set one up by establishing monitoring goals and training volunteers.
“[The CMC] is this umbrella that is trying to get everyone to work together and cooperate across the entire watershed,” said Caroline Donovan, program manager at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Integration and Application Network.
To ensure that these data were easily accessible to Bay Program researchers, the CMC built an interactive tool called the Chesapeake Data Explorer. Combining the data from multiple monitoring groups, the tool allows researchers to access as broad or as narrow of a data set as they desire. The tool also contains essential information informing how the data can be used. With this watershed-wide data collection, scientists and managers can see connections that might not have been possible if they didn’t have access to the data from different groups in different geographical regions.
Data that is used by the Chesapeake Bay Program must meet rigorous standards, which the CMC will help monitoring groups meet. Any data that doesn’t meet those standards can still be used by groups in a variety of ways and uploaded to the Chesapeake Data Explorer.
“The data collected through the CMC expands support of Chesapeake Bay Program efforts to maintain and grow our monitoring program efforts, consistent with the expectations of the partnership highlighted in the Water Quality Goal and its Water Quality Standard Attainment and Monitoring outcome of the Watershed Agreement,” said Peter Tango, monitoring coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey.
Crowd-sourcing the data analyses
While information within the Chesapeake Data Explorer is used by researchers assessing information from their own jurisdiction, the CMC wanted to use the collected data to analyze the watershed as a whole. For that, the organization again turned to volunteers.
In 2020, the CMC partnered with Booz Allen Hamilton to host Hack the Bay, a month-long hackathon in which data scientists, developers, designers, problem solvers and environmental stewards were invited to crunch numbers for the Bay. During the event, teams participated in one of four challenges: developing a restoration case study, identifying data gaps, modeling water pollution and designing a water quality report card. The winners of these challenges tackled everything from how land cover impacts pollution to visualizing gaps in water quality testing, showing the CMC and others, all the ways in which the larger data set can be used.
“This was the first time that this data was used as a holistic data set across the region, and is just the starting point for questions that can be answered,” said Liz Chudoba, the water quality monitoring initiative director at Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the CMC manager.
“Moving forward there is a huge potential for analyses and a wealth of information to look at,” added Donovan.
Hack the Bay is only the beginning of the CMC’s effort to use community members to help analyze their data. As the program has become more standardized, it is easier for new members to join one of the CMC’s certified groups and receive training. The CMC is also working with local universities to expand its volunteer base. In a new partnership with Bowie State University, the organization is training students to be water quality volunteers as part of their coursework. This gives the students real world experience in testing water quality while also providing professional researchers with helpful data.
Moving forward, the CMC plans to keep growing their volunteer monitoring groups, analyzing data and getting that data to the people and organizations that need it the most. And if you’re interested in helping to collect this vital data, take a look at the CMC members to find an organization in your area of the watershed.