Citizen science

The value of community involvement in research can be measured in part through results that reach far beyond the original project scope.

by Lisa Harrison

In 2012, U-Links Centre for Community-Basked Research facilitated a research project using a “Shoreline Classification Scorecard” to assess the shoreline of a lake in Haliburton County.

That project led to the Coalition of Haliburton County Property Owners Associations (CHA) undertaking the national Love Your Lake evaluation program for shoreline naturalization, engaging dozens of local lake associations and evaluating over 65 lakes. In turn, this work has raised public awareness of the importance of naturalized shorelines in protecting lake health, and has motivated many lakeside residents to re-landscape.

Working out the bugs

Several U-Links projects related to lake health can be found at the roots of a new U-Links-facilitated research program called Woodlands and Waterways EcoWatch, which measures the health of waterways through biology rather than chemistry.

In 2019, lake property owners and associations approached U-Links to see if they could supplement water chemistry sampling in assessing lake health. So began a pilot project in biomonitoring using benthic macroinvertebrates, small spineless organisms that live on the bottoms of waterways. They’re commonly used to measure water quality in Ontario and are easy to acquire and inexpensive to sample.

“They’re ubiquitous and certain groupings are attuned to certain types of water quality,” says Brendan Martin, environmental program coordinator for U-Links.

“So, for example, leeches or worms can live pretty much anywhere, whereas certain other bugs only really like very, very cool, clean, clear waters to live in.”

The organism research follows a standardized protocol developed by U-Links, Trent University and Fleming College. Community partners from area lake associations ferry research students to and from collection sites. The students then pick through the organism samples and produce spreadsheets assessing lake health based on their findings.

Brendan Martin, right, instructs a citizen scientist the “kick and sweep” method using a D-net for collecting benthic macroinvertebrate samples. Photo by Sam Gillett/The Highlander

Wading into the great unknown

This summer, WWEW began extending its reach with its first community training program. Participating county residents donned hip waders and jumped in a lake to learn water quality sampling techniques and basic identification of organisms.

The new citizen scientists will start their sampling work this fall, including preparing reports on sampling location conditions.

Among the group will be retired couple Don May and Wendy Lewis of Twelve Mile Lake, and Fleming College student Nadia Pagliaro, daughter of U-Links administrative and logistics coordinator Daniela are deeply committed to protecting lake health.

“These lakes are important in so many ways and their health is intertwined with our health,” says Lewis. “Just a few hours of your time can provide the data so researchers can analyze over time how our lakes are doing and what measures government and citizens can do so we can continue to drink, swim and fish safely.”

Passionate about effecting change, May says he also looks forward to the fun of partnering with Lewis and learning from the project.

He points out there is an additional, critical benefit to keeping lakes healthy.

“Lakes have to survive, otherwise the property owners are going to lose a lot of cash, the cottages won’t be worth anything if the water is not here, and water runs the economy of this area.”

The 24-year-old Pagliaro, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, BC, has lived in the county since she was 2, “so I have spent my whole life enjoying the lakes and lands of this beautiful place. This and my Indigenous heritage have made me feel a deep connection to the land.”

That led to her career choice of environmental science and the WWEW training, says Pagliaro.

Pagliaro intends to take her BSc in environmental science at Royal Roads University in Victoria, but she emphasizes that a science background isn’t necessary to get involved in citizen science.

“It’s a very important part of science these days because community involvement is a necessary part of the work being done to keep our planet healthy.”

Closing the gaps

The offshoots from the original U-Links projects don’t stop there.

“One of the reasons why we realized this would be something important for the Haliburton region is our region is very much underserved by a lot of the organizations that collect environmental data throughout the rest of the province,” Martin notes.

The benthic biomonitoring project contines to grow as enthusiastic lake associations sign up based in great part on word of mouth. WWEW was created in consideration of that growth and because of a recent request from the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust for help in assessing the health of forests under the Trust’s care. Some initial funding has been secured from the province, but the estimated cost is $6,000 per lake system, so additional contributions will be needed.

WWEW’s terrestrial biomonitoring project will create several permanent sampling plots in Trust forests this year. The plots will then be sampled by Trent students every five years to assess how stressors such as climate change are affecting forest ecosystems.