Verifying Management Practice Implementation and Performance

with Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Programs
Common Knowledge
February 16, 2021
Verifying Management Practice Implementation and Performance

For both planning and reporting, models help transform the flow of information and effective decision-making power of investors, regulators, and legislators. Models can predict the outcomes of installed restoration practices such as calculating the estimated reduction of pollutants in waterways or even help plan the best timing and placement for a management practice leading to higher performance, cost effectiveness, and greater impacts on water quality. Every model is, by definition, handicapped by its representative behavior. Models cannot go so far as to verify the completion of the work or the long-lasting impact that the installation of best management practices (BMPs) have on water resources. Investors must shift from a reliance on solely modeled data for planning. We believe the future lies in not only the ability to plan and invest in the highest priority management practices through modeling, but leverage live monitoring data to verify implementation and effect on water quality improvement.

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Program is continuing on their ground-breaking efforts to revolutionize the conservation sector by leveraging volunteer water quality monitoring efforts to verify the impact of their conservation investments.

Water Quality Monitoring in Prince George’s County, MD. Photo Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program

Leveraging FieldDoc as a core management practice tracking application, NFWF has an up-to-date view of their programmatic investments and the expected pollution reduction impact, also referred to as progress towards their pollution reduction goals. FieldDoc’s Atlas module is capable of displaying BMP footprints, their associated reductions based on implementation , and the timeframe in which the work occurred. Since 2017, NFWF grantees have been tasked with entering their project information into FieldDoc as part of their proposal and grant reporting requirements. This requisite tracking has built the foundation for continued growth of strategic investment in conservation work as well as creating one of the only transparent management practice data pipelines on the internet These highly structured data are vital to federal reporting requirements and a building block to improving existing models.

The future for any successful conservation program to declaratively move the needle on conservation goals is to verify the impact of their investments and monitor the continued efficacy of the practice.

Tree planting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program

“In financing ecosystem and watershed restoration efforts, funders often prioritize actions to identify, plan, and implement on-the-ground restoration actions and only periodically assess progress towards shared goals through expert monitoring and evaluation” said Jake Reilly, NFWF director of Chesapeake Bay programs. “Less often are funders able to build partnerships that establish clear standards and strengthen local capacity for continuous evaluation in a way that allows project implementers, funders and project partners, and the local community to understand and measure the true impacts from these investments in near-real time.”

Many small watershed organizations have developed self-sufficient water quality monitoring programs that deploy trained volunteers to routinely collect water quality data at specific sites. These programs collect chemical and bacteria water quality data and provide localized insight into the quality of bodies of water with expansive geographical coverage. Longevity and consistency matters. Just within the Chesapeake Bay, this author knows of monitoring programs holding on to upwards of five, ten, or even thirty plus years of data. These data keep a vital pulse on the health of their waterways and can be leveraged to verify management practice implementation and performance

The importance of monitoring cannot be overstated and well-regarded programs often generate continued funding, unlock funding for new implementation of best management practices, and engage new stakeholders. In order for the full value of these monitoring programs to be realized, however, they need to invest the time and resources into developing quality assurance project plans, properly training volunteers, sticking to standard operating procedures, and managing their data to facilitate fast and accurate sharing with a diverse audience.

Volunteers routinely monitor urban and rural locations to monitor river health. These volunteers with Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper use Water Reporter to visualize their results.

Monitoring and implementation of BMPs are complimentary. Monitoring a stream takes on a new importance after engineers install a bank stabilization project or install livestock exclusion fencing.

The NFWF Bay Program is partnering with leaders in the regional volunteer monitoring movement, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay (The Alliance), to build a study design for a regional monitoring program that complements their restoration funding. The Alliance has a proven record of standing up and assessing the quality of community water quality monitoring as well as working as vital data hub and capacity builder to monitoring programs throughout the Chesapeake via The Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative. To make a connection between NFWF’s extensive investments, The Alliance will develop a study design intended to monitor the impact that NFWF funded BMPs had on improving local water quality. The design will include a monitoring protocol that identifies sites based on proximity to BMP locations, and a monitoring schedule that determines monitoring frequency, and assessed quality of the data collected. Ideally, the sites will be sampled using comparable, if not identical, standard operating procedures and collect the same parameters so that data collected across the watershed can be compared and assessed in a normalized fashion.

As a first step, to facilitate the support of monitoring to report on restoration work, The Commons built a NFWF an interactive map of all of their funded projects from 2017 to present. The map displays all funded projects from Innovative Nutrient Reduction Program, Small Watershed Grants, and the Pennsylvania Local Government grant Programs. The map was broken out by geometry types to ensure data integrity. By installing a search feature, users can filter for specific BMPS implemented such as bank stabilization or rain gardens. Users who have FieldDoc accounts can navigate straight from a popup in this map application to a FieldDoc practice, site, or project page.

At The Commons, we welcome and celebrate the union of restoration work — what we support with FieldDoc; and monitoring work — what we support with Water Reporter. We anticipate that the NFWF-Alliance partnership will serve as a replicable pilot demonstrating the value of close collaboration between implementation and monitoring at a scale never before attempted. The result, we anticipate, will be an unprecedented understanding of the long-term impact of the restoration work as well as validation of the efficacy of the models that funders, restoration professionals, policy-makers, and regulatory agencies rely upon to direct future funding and investment.

We plan to enable the two components of successful conservation through the integration of the FieldDoc and Water Reporter platforms over the coming year. In the meantime, we strongly encourage and support the efforts of the environmental sector to continue moving toward integrated data approaches that create live, not static, data pipelines that can be fed to models for continual improvement and the most accurate representation of how our actions improve water quality.