The following guest post on crowdsourcing water quality data to enforce the Clean Water Act is by James Lang, who practiced law in Flint for many years, and formerly served as a Board Member of Legal Services of Eastern Michigan. In 2012 and 2013, Mr. Lang was a guest lecturer at MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. His interests include the Great Lakes, water quality, and transparency in government. Mr. Lang earned his B.A. from Case Western Reserve University and his J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. You may contact James Lang at email@example.com.
The so-called Clean Water Act (CWA) is actually a chain of congressional enactments over the years, most notably the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972. And the CWA is augmented by a number of other related statutes, such as the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 (one of many iterations before and since). Dubbed the oldest U.S. environmental law, it prohibits dumping refuse into navigable waters and regulates the excavation or filling of certain shoreline features.
For the most part, this symbiotic CWA is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), either directly or by delegation of some responsibilities to the states. The objective is to prevent water pollution in two categories, point source pollution and nonpoint source pollution. Initially, the focus was on point source pollution, such as industrial facilities and municipal wastewater treatment plants. Point sources are the easier of the two types of pollution to identify because they are usually pipes leading directly to water bodies such as lakes or streams.
Nonpoint sources are those like homes, lawns and gardens from which chemicals find their way into storm drains, or agricultural operations where toxins, pathogens and nutrients in herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers and manure seep into ditches and streams. Determining who is polluting is a challenge. Federal, state and local governments lack the personnel and funding to monitor water quality closely enough across vast areas to say exactly where pollutants of the nonpoint source variety originate.
In recent years, widespread algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie have re-ignited fears of oxygen depletion and dead zones in the lake. In 2011 and 2014, toxic blooms of cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae) spread across the lake. The 2014 bloom poisoned the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people.
The cause of the blooms is widely thought to be nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) runoff from row crop farming and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the Maumee River and other nearby watersheds, intensified by a warming climate. Water quality activists in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan have reported high concentrations of E. coli and phosphorus in the far upper reaches of these watersheds, where few if any federal, state or local enforcement agents go. The form of phosphorus observed to be increasing is dissolved reactive phosphorus, readily available as fuel for algae growth (as opposed to particulate phosphorus).
At present, there aren’t anywhere near enough volunteer activists to cover all of the territory necessary to pinpoint agricultural runoff in the creeks and ditches that comprise the headwaters of rivers leading to western Lake Erie. An effort is afoot to develop crowd-sourced water data collection to reach far upstream into these headwaters. The idea is to enable anyone with a smartphone, the appropriate (yet to be developed) apps and a little time to (1) record observations like depth, temperature and turbidity; (2) conduct simple chemical tests; and (3) upload the results instantly to a website where the data can be analyzed, stored and made available to the public.
Anyone could participate at whatever locations and as often or as little as they wish. The key is to use social media to attract multitudes to the project.
Officials at EPA, USGS, NOAA and USACE are aware of and presumably discussing this proposal. The International Joint Commission (IJC) and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) have expressed some interest in the concept, as have a number of water quality nonprofits in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. Of particular note, a tribal representative in Alaska tasked with organizing three water monitoring projects is following the progress of the new data collection idea here in the Great Lakes region. On the technology front, researchers have developed a way for an iPhone to function as a spectrophotometer for conducting more accurate measurements of nitrate, phosphate and other chemicals in water. Now we need more awareness of the concept’s potential, further work on identifying and perhaps developing the best technology suited to the concept, and a demonstration project to garner wide-spread support.