**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>

“Hmm”, a surfer wonders, “I wonder where I should surf today?”. The next step is a quick web crawl, checking the tides, wave forecast, and water quality. The latter of those data points likely comes from Surfrider Foundation’s website, where one can gain insight on recent water quality at their local beaches through Surfrider Foundation’s coastal water quality monitoring program, the Blue Water Task Force. For the Central Coast, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo both host active chapters which can help surfers understand the water quality associated with the beaches and surf breaks in their local area.

The Basics
In order to create the informative maps viewed by the public, volunteers for each of the Blue Water Task Force chapters take water samples at local beaches and surf breaks, which are then sampled at the Surfrider Foundation local chapter’s lab for fecal indicator bacteria, such as Enterococci and E. coli.. Chapters across the country vary greatly in how much time they devoteand how many volunteers participate. Nationwide, there are 28 groups participating, who collectively tested 3,127 samples in 2013. The Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo chapters have both begun to think about possible sources of detected bacterial pollution in addition to their other responsibilities at their 31 and 11 sites, respectively. Some chapters have just one dedicated volunteer while others have a coordinator that manages 10-20 volunteers.

Map of the Santa Cruz chapter’s monitoring sites earlier this year

Program Participation
Volunteers range widely in terms of age, experience, and education. Sometimes it is difficult to tailor conversations to such a diverse audience. However, people find a role they feel comfortable fitting into within the program. Some of the more experienced, educated volunteers take leadership roles within a chapter. Each chapter also leverages local resources, through partnerships with schools and businesses. Volunteers do not need to have prior experience  since all volunteers are required to go through detailed training on proper water sampling and testing methods and protocol. 

Meeting the Mission by Balancing Goals
The Blue Water Task Force’s mission is to determine which beaches are safe for swimming, create public awareness of impaired beaches, and develop forward movement towards sustainable management of coastal water resources. While sometimes the tasks at hand look like an activist approach – requesting a beach be closed – it’s more about long-term evaluation. In the short term, this may mean recomending closing the beach to protect swimmers and/or notifying local regulatory agencies of high levels of bacteria, but the real mission is within a long-term approach, working with managers and regulatory agencies to identify areas with chronic problems, help identify the sources of contamination, and help establish a pathway to mitigating those sources. In Surfrider Foundation’s experience across the country, chapters either use their data to take the time and build this working relationship or aggressively demand changes. It’s the latter scenario that causes agency staff to turn away, so the chapters are encouraged to do the former.

Despite the Blue Water Task Force’s efforts to identify as non-activist and work with local water and beach managers, they are nestled within the larger Surfrider Foundation organization, which has many advocacy campaigns ongoing at any given time. Some of these campaigns intersect with the Task Force’s interests, such as MPA development. Conscious efforts to separate the communications about the programs are necessary, since one aspect of the Surfrider Foundation has a subjective approach (advocacy for certain goals), while the Blue Water Task Force program within Surfrider Foundation has a more objective approach (responding to data)..

Data Types Good for a Citizen Science Approach
Lots of guidance and many tools exist for standardized water quality testing, so the more common parameters are relatively easy to implement in a citizen science context. This includes enterococcus bacteria, the main focus of the Blue Water Task Force, as well as metrics like nitrate, phosphate, dissolved oxygen, and pH for which simple meters exist. Citizens can follow a simple field protocol and allow the technology to do the rest. Other parameters of interest, like pesticides and oil, are more difficult because they require expensive, sensitive lab equipment with detailed, technical protocols..

Data Uses

Educational Uses
Many chapters have partnerships with local schools to incorporate the Blue Water Task Force activities into their curriculum. Students have the full opportunities of participation but also often work on the data in the classroom after time in the field. For higher education students, Blue Water Task Force serves as a great internship opportunity, providing them with the chance to manage/coordinate the program and apply scientific approaches to analyzing the data their program collects.

Management Uses
Close relationships with the county Department of Health Beach programs create a pipeline from volunteer data to beach closures when data show pollutants exceed water quality thresholds.  Many chapters have such a relationship and volunteer efforts actively expand county capacity, especially in rural and other hard-to-access areas. From a national perspective, the data from partnered chapters are better received than from chapters with no established relationship or pathway for data use.

As part of these official relationships, data are used alongside official county water quality data to help identify priority areas, assist with tracking sources of contamination, and make presentations at city councils to keep water quality on the agenda. It also features in public testimony directly to decision-makers working on coastal issues. While the program energy and data are used in many contexts, there are also many more opportunities to create or strengthen connection to water quality managers, landscape planners, and city councils. 

Before chapters can take these additional opportunities, the Blue Water Task Force is working on establishing a reputation as a legitimate, credible source of information. One chapter gave local policymakers a tour of the laboratory while others put out regular public reports. All are good about documenting their methods and quality control. Once the program and its data are familiar to policymakers, they may choose to use it in their decisions.

Scientific Credibility

verification of data quality
For enterococcus bacteria, the Environmental Protection Agency has an approved protocol in partnership with the water testing companyIDEXX that is easy to use and well-understood within the water quality field. In addition, volunteer data is periodically compared to the county’s official water testing data to ensure they yield similar results.

raw data transparency and access
The data, both in summarized map form and  raw table form are available on the Surfrider Foundation website. The basic parameter used for recommendations in the map is concentration of enterococcus bacteria – as it is the legal requirement – but chapters add parameters of local concern available in the raw data sheets.

clarity of communications
Quality assurance/quality control varies for each chapter, depending largely upon local resources available. Each chapter is responsible for explaining the level of lab certification they have achieved and justify why this level is appropriate for balancing chapter capacity and scientific needs.

Program Sustainability
Given the distributed nature of the Blue Water Task Force, the local coordinator is key to forming connections and maintaining relationships with managers. In addition to this critical leadership position, there are a number of helpful resources that help Blue Water Task Force complete their activities and meet their multifaceted mission:

  • website for distributing data and communicating key results
  • relationship with city council or other local government that is proactive and not combative
  • twitter, facebook, or other social media forums for facilitating communication among program members
  • technology expert to help with online platforms
  • local partners, especially for lab space
  • regional staff for volunteer coordination
  • annual workshops or regional conferences to discuss the data and implications

Looking Toward the Future
In the future, the Blue Water Task Force wants to find more opportunities to use their data. For example, reports could be included in educational materials about MPAs alongside habitat and biodiversity characterizations. Similarly, water quality data could be compared alongside biological monitoring in MPAs to see if there are any correlations. In addition, Blue Water Task Force would like to break the barrier that separates land and marine environments, showing the intimate connection that is shared between land-based activites and coastal water quality.