The Power of Regional Monitoring Cooperatives

Organizations have started to recognize the power of collaboration and are committed to building more collaborative networks. We have seen an expansion in interest in building regional monitoring cooperatives as an extension of this thinking. Each one is unique, like the watersheds and rivers they serve, but contributors find commonality across political and geographical boundaries to better assess and protect their freshwater ecosystems
Common Knowledge
June 30, 2023
The Power of Regional Monitoring Cooperatives

The Connecticut River is New England’s longest river. This iconic river, seen on every map as the demarcation between Vermont and New Hampshire, provides power, drinking water, and recreational opportunities to communities, as well as offers foundational habitat for a rich variety of flora and fauna. The headwaters of the Connecticut River begin in Fourth Connecticut Lake, a small pond near Chartierville, Quebec, Canada. Along its 410-mile path south, the river flows through forests and farmlands before carving through more-suburban, multi-use landscapes of southern New England, eventually broadening into estuarine wetlands and emptying into the Long Island Sound. Four states claim jurisdiction over the waterways along its path along with countless communities that can make decisions on their landscapes that will impact the river. 

The Connecticut River is both iconic and demonstrative of the intersection of hydrology and geopolitics. The beauty (and annoyance) of rivers and their watersheds is that they follow the natural laws of physics, not the political rules governing the land. State boundary lines and international borders may align with or ignore hydrological features; regardless, our administrative uses for waterways don’t simplify their hydrology or governability. Both the management and assessment of waterways become more complex not only because multiple jurisdictions may have diverging stakes in their management but also because the characteristics determining ‘good’ water management differ by ecoregion. Considering this intersection of natural and geopolitical reality, the universal truth for proper river oversight is that a substantial level of human cooperation, collaboration, and communication is needed to manage and assess river health. 

By nature, rivers are unruly. In the past, political boundaries were often established along bodies of water as they made easily recognizable markers for boundary lines, like in the case of Vermont and New Hampshire. Unfortunately, today the old cartographer’s trick has entangled the monitoring and protection of these water bodies in bureaucracy. For example, collecting data throughout a river system is a common way to monitor health and manage river resources. In the United States, monitoring may be done at the behest of the federal, state, or local government, conducted by a utility or industry to fulfill permit requirements, or undertaken by an independent group with a unique end goal. Multiple entities may monitor the same waterbody, but the river itself cannot unify monitoring efforts.

Photo Credit: Breoni Turner, Cleveland Metroparks

Is coordination the default participatory method? In an ideal scenario, anyone monitoring would collaborate so that the data they collect can connect. Unfortunately, much like rivers, monitoring groups may appear unattached to the wills of others. We see solo paths taken time and time again. Monitoring groups may overlap their oversight of watersheds but do little else in common. For example, they may have a myriad of different datasets and metadata all stored in different locations and are, oftentimes, disconnected from each other. The fault for the disconnection lies not in the monitoring groups but in broader processes — most protocols for monitoring are dictated by the resources a group finds, such as the hardware and software available to conduct the monitoring, the capabilities of the monitors themselves, their technical acumen, the financial means, and the level of support provided by governing bodies.

Thankfully, in recent years, organizations have started to recognize the power of collaboration and are committed to building more collaborative networks. We have seen an expansion in interest in building regional monitoring cooperatives as an extension of this thinking. Each one is unique, like the watersheds and rivers they serve, but contributors find commonality across political and geographical boundaries to better assess and protect their freshwater ecosystems. In our experience, these regional water quality initiatives present one of the most effective models for building impactful monitoring programs for watershed health. The most effective of these elevate participatory groups so that they can collect and contribute high-quality water data. 

The pillars of these partnerships include intentional collaborations, shared knowledge and standard protocols, and increased data visibility.

Intentional Collaboration

The passing of the Clean Water Act was followed by a rapid expansion in water quality monitoring across the United States. Agencies collect data to fulfill regulatory obligations and to protect public health and collective resources. We often quote the statistic that only 30% of our nation’s waterways are monitored by regulatory bodies. Thankfully, community monitoring programs operating alongside these regulated programs have a treasure trove of data to offer; however, these groups have different end goals than their regulated counterparts because they are motivated by a desire to uncover local pollution, fill data gaps left by local, state, and federal monitoring programs, and connect with their natural world. Defining an end goal matters.

In our work and collaborations, we see that these disparate monitoring programs have little to no interaction with each other except maybe for a vague knowledge that the other existed. For example, in the District-Maryland-Virginia area, at least half a dozen groups were monitoring independently of each other for more than a decade. Groups were monitoring to educate their local communities, assess use quality, and inform water quality improvement after the installation of stormwater management interventions. These monitoring programs were monitoring the same parameters in the same locations but had no idea the other existed, their resulting data silos devalued their data. In the DMV, leaders identified the redundant efforts and, building on their goals, paving the way toward impactful collaboration.

Shared Knowledge

As these issues became more universal (and public), collaborative monitoring programs started to emerge at the federal level, often due to an increased degradation in environmental health. The Chesapeake Bay, for example, was in such dire straits by the early 1980s that a multi-agency, multi-state Chesapeake Bay Program was established with the express purpose of combining the efforts of the six-bay states to ultimately heal the damaged bay. What started as a seemingly common sense idea — to get different water quality monitoring programs to collaborate and share data — has now grown into an essential model of interstate and interagency collaboration and cooperation with other local, state, and federal regional monitoring initiatives forming across the U.S. to help protect watersheds in their respective areas.

Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay outside Newport News, VA

The initial monitoring networks were often agency and academic-focused. Their participatory requirements excluded community-based monitoring groups. This exclusion omitted valuable resources, community knowledge, and collected water data. A likely cause for this was the unfair stigma put on community-generated data as “untrustworthy” or not comparable to government or university-generated data (even though governments and universities were sometimes involved in these programs). Not to be deterred, community groups likewise started to see the benefit of combining efforts as most community monitoring programs were hyper-local and poorly funded. Through collaboration amongst organizations, community groups were able to expand their monitoring reach by combining resources and funds across organizations; soon organizations were creating well-established networks which were a) expanding and b) that local, state, and federal partners were getting involved with. A model that has proven time and again to allow water data to serve a wider use and build true bottom-to-top collaboration to heal environmentally degraded watersheds.

Shared Resources

The power of regional monitoring cooperatives lies in their ability to aggregate resources, knowledge, and funds for the collective protection of waters across substantially larger areas. Through collaboration and collective organizing, they empower smaller, locally focused watershed groups to continue to monitor and protect their local waterways while contributing to larger regional efforts. Water quality data is vital across different spatial and temporal scales so the ability to aggregate data collected across a wide area into a singular network substantially increases the utility and comparability of these data. Imagine trying to assess the health of the Chesapeake Bay without accounting for the Potomac watershed. Or making policy decisions about the Columbia River Basin without including data from the Snake River. It would add up to a wasted effort as vital water data would be missing. 

These efforts also allow smaller groups to more effectively utilize funds and resources which may be limited. Small organizations can still collect all important community water data that directly contributes to their local mission while increasing the impact of that data by providing it to larger datasets; all while sustainably spending funds that provide local and regional impact and maintaining data sovereignty.

Setting the Foundation

Unfortunately, the work required to achieve a fully formed and functional regional monitoring cooperative is anything but light. These networks don’t just pop up, they often require months to years of planning, structuring, trust building, and funding. Once a desire to collaborate is established, the first steps in building these networks are a combination of fundraising and trust building through network planning/structuring. Where and when the funding comes from matters. We are familiar with efforts that have been funded by state, federal, or private initiatives at some point, but more often than not these networks are bootstrapped and up and running before any direct funding starts to come in. This is why the initial planning and structuring of the network is such an important part of the process, as it aligns network goals and procedures into one unified effort.

The initial planning effort needs to explore and land on the foundations of the cooperative whole. All stakeholders need to voice their goals so that the working group can figure out the study design, network goals, and data use cases. If larger entities with the resources to conduct the launch of a group coordinate the planning phase, they need to look for meaningful ways to engage their bootstrapped counterparts. Planning will make or break a regional effort. Foundations must be solid. Without the initial background work to build trust and standardize work, processes will be bloated and less impactful.

Increased data visibility

Without this foundation the data collected under these regional efforts can also become disorganized and sometimes serve the opposite purpose under which it was collected, making it harder to access and understand for the public and decision-makers. Both an appropriate data management plan and workflow are essential to the success of these networks to ensure that data is of a known quality and is aggregated and visualized in a way that serves to better increase its impact. Too many groups want to jump to sleek maps or data visualization without fully understanding how they want/should manage and aggregate the data, making the visualizations clunky and counterproductive to their intent. Every part of these regional initiatives needs to be built purposefully to achieve their end goals.

Beacons of Collaboration

Successful collaborations are underway across the United States, with more in the works at the time of this writing. The success in eliciting change through collaboration achieved from some efforts can serve as a blueprint for nascent efforts. 

Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative

On the east coast, the Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative (CMC) has served as a prime example of a highly impactful regional network that leverages local watershed groups, large-scale collaboration, and government buy-in. Established in 2015 through a partnership between the Chesapeake Bay Program, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Izaak Walton League of America, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and Alliance for Aquatic Resources Monitoring, the CMC is a Chesapeake Bay-focused monitoring initiative meant to enhance and highlight community water quality initiatives around the watershed. The real significance of the CMC comes in both its back-end protocol harmonization as well as its data platform, the Data Explorer. The CMC worked to establish a base tiered monitoring framework that was universal and allowed new organizations to join and start contributing data as soon as certain monitoring criteria, like a QAPP and data management plan, were established. This, combined with its Data Explorer, which allows organizations to contribute data to a larger dataset shown on a map with other data from across the Bay, has allowed CMC to enhance the impact of community-generated data in the Bay and get more of it into decision makers hands to better understand the health of the watershed.

Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative Data Explorer
Lake Erie Volunteer Science Network

Since 2020, The Commons has provided technical service guidance and support to the nascent Lake Erie Volunteer Science Network. Originally conceived by Cleveland Water Alliance, this program has envisioned and manifested a regional monitoring initiative around the Great Lakes Region. Partners have made this Network possible since the beginning  — with Cleveland Water Alliance, Water Data Collaborative, and other regional partners providing resources and generating interest in committing to a set of universal monitoring procedures for partners monitoring across the Lake Erie basin. The result of the first phase of work was the Lake Erie Volunteer Science Network (LEVSN), a network of community monitoring programs surrounding Lake Erie. To unify the data, all participating monitoring programs use The Commons’ Water Reporter application to manage their discrete data. Because Water Reporter structures it in machine-readable formats, LEVSN can aggregate each program’s data for analysis and visualization. 

This work has been made possible by the contributions of cross-discipline experts. CWA went through an extensive study design and network-building stage with help from Water Data Collaborative Steering Committee member Barb Horn. Through this process, the monitoring groups looked at what they wanted the end data use to be as well as what procedures and methods to adopt and standardize. By recognizing the value of trust build, CWA has created one of the most advanced and inclusive community science networks in the U.S. with public and private organizations collecting data and contributing it to a regional dataset. Thanks to their approach, smaller organizations can join and collect community-pertinent data vital to their mission while also contributing that data to better help improve the health of the whole Lake Erie region.

Cleveland Water Alliance water quality dashboard

Replacing silos with bridges

Silos in the water monitoring sector have persisted for too long. All stakeholders in the sector seem to agree on this point. The separation of government data from academic data from community data slows our progress towards healthier watersheds and continues to hinder the further restoration of our waterways. Time and time again regional collaborations have proven their ability to break down data and communications silos to encourage the further sharing of water quality data and elevation of community-generated water data. As technologies advance and communication and data sharing become easier, these types of initiatives need to be prioritized, especially in areas sensitive to environmental degradation. Additionally, these types of initiatives need to be targeted for increased funding as well as increasing access to technical resources that make them easier to get off the ground and maintain. By following an established “recipe” or framework for building out these networks, organizations can stand up new initiatives with limited resources while still providing immediate impact based on their data and unique understanding of their local waterways. 

For community-led water quality programs, regional monitoring initiatives offer a mechanism for these groups to not only build their capacity but also see the data they collect serving a broader use. While the pace of technology offers us a myriad of different solutions to our clean water mission, the intrinsic value of collaboration and community building is the cornerstone of any successful monitoring initiative. Only when organizations and staff from different sectors can come together for the sole purpose of sharing information and collectively working towards a common goal of clean water can the paradigm of traditional water monitoring begin to shift. What started as a trickle we hope to see turn into a slide; a slide that regional networks of water quality professionals can continue to push.