Monitoring Your Waterbody – Questions to Answer before Heading to the River

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by Curtis Hartenstine, CDPHE and CRA Board Member
Volume 22, Number 3, Fall 2011

Monitoring Your Waterbody - Questions to Answer before Heading to the River

Bank pins like the rebar seen in the center of this photo are a useful tool for monitoring lateral recession rates (LRR). Monitoring of LRR before and after the instillation of j hooks is one way to document project scale effectiveness

Attending watershed gatherings, restoration efforts, planning meetings and similar activities, the topic of monitoring frequently comes to the forefront of the discussion. Whatever needs a monitoring component is designed to address, there are several considerations water quality planners should make before putting on the waders and heading out to gather data. These include what kinds of data are required, who is the audience that will receive the data, what scale to monitor, what methods to choose and how to manage and report data. These factors are all aspects of a monitoring program that must be addressed before collecting data. Without the careful consideration of these points, many groups will waste limited resources on monitoring efforts that fail to meet the true needs of the organization and the goals they are trying to achieve.

Perhaps the most critical question to ask, as obvious as it seems, is “What is the story we are looking to tell with monitoring data, and who are we going to tell this story to?” Groups must first decide if monitoring is needed at all. Without a need for data to tell a story and an audience to receive the story, monitoring efforts will likely be largely uncoordinated with the goals of the organization, or the wrong types of data may be generated. The needs for data are many. Synoptic monitoring can discern the point and nonpoint sources of a given pollutant of interest; baseline monitoring can be used to characterize a large watershed area or segment to understand current conditions; effectiveness monitoring can detail the ability of a restoration project to meet the environmental goals it is designed to achieve. The need for the data must be clearly stated before creating a Sample Analysis and Project Plan (SAPP) to guide your monitoring efforts.

The question of a data need is tied to the audience that the group is collecting the data for. Baseline data may be of interest to a citizen the group is trying to reach for membership, while synoptic data may be required when addressing a regulatory issue within the watershed. Careful consideration of the audience will ensure that the data quality objectives of the monitoring activity align with the needs of the audience. Data quality objectives (DQO) spell out what type, quality and quantity of data meet the needs of the audience. To use the aforementioned scenario, the DQO of a monitoring plan to gather baseline data may vary widely from a synoptic event in terms of the number of samples required, the quality assurance/quality control components of the program, the methods used to generate the data and many other factors.

Monitoring Your Waterbody - Questions to Answer before Heading to the River

Comparing width to depth ratios of a project area versus those in a reference reach provides useful data when considering design approaches.

Given endless amounts of time and money, many groups would choose to monitor their watershed comprehensively to meet multiple DQOs for a variety of audiences. These ideal situations are rarely encountered, however and groups must take careful thought into the scale of the monitoring efforts. With consideration to the need and audience, monitoring is frequently carried out at three scales:

  1. Project Scale: Often this level of monitoring seeks to detail the effectiveness of a particular BMP to addressing a particular pollutant or stressor. An example is to monitor bank erosion rates immediately downstream from a j hook or weir that was designed to reduce erosion on a streambank.
  2. Segment Scale: Segment monitoring is the practice of determining the baseline conditions or cumulative effects of stressors or management techniques are having on a stream segment. The segment length may be what is described in a regulatory format or defined by political/social /biologic boundaries.
  3. Watershed Scale: Monitoring at the watershed scale allows the group to understand how various stressors/management techniques are affecting the watershed as a whole. While sample points may be located at multiple points within the watershed, a common theme of watershed scale monitoring involves monitoring at the confluence of the watershed with a receiving water body.

In terms of restoration and habitat improvement projects, the importance of understanding pre project conditions is twofold. First, the collection of pre project data details the level of impairment prior to the development of the restoration/rehabilitation plan. Sufficient pre project data can determine the sources of impairment, the scope of the impairment, and the level or remediation to address the impairment. Secondly, the establishment of pre project data gives the group the ability to discuss the improvements of the project in scientific terms when the data are compared to post project data. Without pre project data, restoration goals that include the terms improve, restore orrehabilitate cannot be used as the baseline condition has not been established. One cannot improve a scenario (like benthic macroinvertebrate communities) without understanding what the pre project conditions are.

Once the needs, audience, and scope of data collection are identified he assessor faces the task of selecting methods to apply to their monitoring SAPP. Careful consideration to the DQO’s required by audience is warranted here as all methods are not equal in rigor. If the group is collecting post project data to compare with pre project or historical data from another source, the same method should be applied to be able to compare the data sets equally.

When considering the methods the group will need to assess their water body, the means with which the data will be stored and analyzed must also be investigated. Survey data collected with advanced techniques often requires specific software to draw cross sections and plot data points. Software such as AutoCAD can perform this task, but costs thousands of dollars to purchase and specific training to operate. The consideration of these concepts ensures that the group will be able to store and assess data before data are collected.

The final step of the monitoring process is the reporting of the data and analysis that was collected. When reporting data, again, the assessor must consider the audience. If the reports, for example, are meant to show project outcomes for a funding agency, the assessor should focus on the project’s ability to meet its stated goals. Those that are seeking to influence members of community to action may choose to focus less on the science, and more on the community benefits of the project. Whatever your audience, use appropriate language and data summary to ensure that your story is understood and appreciated.

The considerations one must make when conducting monitoring are many. Should the group take care to identify needs and an audience, the scale, methodology, data storage, data assessment and reporting components will have a much greater likelihood for meeting the monitoring objectives. When in doubt over the components of a monitoring plan, contact the audience the group is trying to influence for guidance. Time spent thoughtfully during the formation of a monitoring plan will tell the story the way your group intended.