By Ravali Bheemanathini
Alabama has enough miles of rivers and streams to circle the earth five times, and for the past 25 years, a devoted group of citizen volunteers has worked to protect these bountiful water resources.
The group is Alabama Water Watch, and as it celebrates a quarter-century of service, its challenge has never been greater: monitoring more than 132,000 miles of rivers and streams as well as more than 300 species of freshwater fish, along with a greater abundance of crayfish, snails, turtles and mussels than any other state.
Established in 1992, AWW’s mission is to improve both water quality and water policy through citizen monitoring and action. Over the years, it has become a national model for citizen involvement in watershed stewardship, largely because of its three interrelated components: citizen monitoring groups, a participating university and a nonprofit association.
“Many people didn’t think we would last a year because they thought Alabamians were not interested in their water or their environment,” says Bill Deutsch, AWW co-founder and research fellow emeritus in the Auburn University’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences.
Deutsch, who directed AWW for its first 22 years, remains heavily involved in the association, and he likes to remind those who were skeptical in the beginning about the longevity and effectiveness of AWW.
“Interest in the program exploded, and over the past 25 years, we’ve worked with more than 300 community groups throughout Alabama,” he says. “Water Watch has trained 7,400 citizen monitors who have monitored 2,300 sites on streams, rivers, lakes, bays and bayous throughout the state and submitted more than 86,000 water quality records to the AWW online database.”
Alabama Water Watch uses EPA-approved monitoring plans with a community-based approach to train citizens to monitor conditions and trends of their local waterbodies, Deutsch says. With a “data-to-action” focus, AWW helps volunteers collect, analyze and understand their data to make positive impacts.
“It’s all voluntary, covering 800 bodies of water,” Deutsch says. “This ‘citizen science’ only grows in value over time because the baseline of information gets larger.”
AWW encourages citizens to ask if their waterbody is getting better or worse and why? he says. “This is a very simple but deep question. What are the conditions of my water? Can it support healthy life? Is it safe for swimming? Can I drink it or fish in it?”
The data that has been and continues to be collected is used by various organizations, consulting firms and universities throughout the state and nation, Deutsch says.
AWW also has helped to conserve some of the rarest creatures, he says. In Birmingham, for example, there are only five springs that contain the small fish, Watercress Darter, and those bodies of water are currently being monitored.
Connecting with a new audience
As AWW celebrates its 25th year, it is setting its sights on connecting with a new, younger audience through environmental education, Deutsch says.
“When I began AWW, we thought the primary volunteers would be the 20-somethings, but in fact, it was the opposite,” he says. “It was largely driven by retirement-age people living on our big reservoirs. The age of volunteers kept climbing, and it got to the point to where we were ‘graying’ and people were having to quit.”
Too many children today are staying indoors and playing on their screens, Deutsch says. “The connection to the natural world is getting dangerously weak, and children are afraid of being outdoors.”
This educational effort is needed now more than ever, especially considering budget cuts at both the state and federal levels, says Eric Reutebuch, who has served as AWW director since Deutsch’s retirement in 2014.
“We’re reaching out to our youth, but we’re also trying to spread the message to everyone,” Reutebuch says. “Alabama has some of the most endangered species on the planet, and a lot of people don’t know that. We’re reaching out to the general public and trying to make them aware of this truly exceptional resource that we need to care for.”
In an effort to reach new audiences, AWW is partnering with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System through the 4-H Alabama Water Watch program.
“In a best-case scenario, many of the young people who are exposed at an early age will get out into the streams and creeks, actually seeing the critters there,” Reutebuch says. “Hopefully, they will become aware of the aquatic environment and will become monitors into their adulthoods.”
Just last year, 1,800 youth were educated and trained through the 4-H program, and nearly 90 adults were trained in Living Streams workshops. The 4-H program includes students in grades four through 12.
“We’ve always offered opportunities for educators to get involved, but we wanted to do even more,” says AWW’s Mona Dominguez, coordinator of the 4-H program. “It made sense to partner with Alabama 4-H.”
All AWW training and water testing follows EPA-approved protocols, Dominguez says.
“The 4-H curriculum is very flexible, so educators or teachers can tweak it however they need to make it work,” she says. “Participants must be 16 years old to do independent monitoring. But if they have a teacher or volunteer who has gone through training, they can still collect data, and it’ll be used.”
4-H Alabama Water Watch offers many training programs throughout the year. With a workshop registration of $25 and completion of the program, volunteers will receive a certification as an AWW Water Monitor, a copy of Exploring Our Living Streams curriculum, access to the online Citizen Science Data Stimulation Tool, food and lodging during the workshop and more.
Operating under the umbrella of the Auburn University Water Resources Center, AWW receives support from multiple sources including the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, grants from various governmental and private agencies, and contributions from individuals and groups throughout the state.
Ravali Bheemanathini is a senior at Auburn University majoring in agricultural communications.