Water Quality Monitoring: Past, Present, Future

When water monitoring systems operate as planned, they are beautiful testaments to the power of the US Clean Water Act and everything it has achieved. How we got to this point, and the progress we still need to make are critical to understanding the impact of data management in water quality monitoring.
Common Knowledge
March 22, 2023
Water Quality Monitoring: Past, Present, Future

A “hunger stone” is the last thing you want to see in Central Europe. Serving as the medieval analog to “If you can read this it’s too late”, hunger stones are river markers placed along streambeds in times of exceedingly low water levels to indicate drought or extreme hardship. Made famous in recent years due to their ill-awated emergence tied to climate related droughts along the Elbe River in the Czech Republic, these markers have effectively communicated a long established connection between humans and our need for clean, abundant, and accessible water.

Humans have long collected environmental data to understand the dramatic impact that the Earth’s natural resources have on shaping our societies, cultures, and overall well being. In the past, cities inundated with constant floods didn’t prosper. To protect ourselves, we innovated to better predict floods and build more resilient cities unbeholden to the water line. Unfortunately, with modern advancements come modern problems.

With the advent of technology catalyzed by the industrial revolution, cities faced threats more chronically catastrophic than flooding. Our air became hazier, and our waters murkier. Pollution was no longer constrained to sediments or sewage, synthetic chemicals and byproducts suddenly threatened the very water we drank and the air we breathed. Thankfully, communities continue to recognize the need to monitor the health of our water resources and while monitoring systems and technologies have evolved beyond placing stone water markers, the human component of these systems has failed to keep pace. We’ve reached a point where anyone can share up to date water levels of the Mississippi or water quality grades along the Chesapeake Bay with a few clicks of a mouse, but we can’t agree on how that data should be shaped, how to best interpret it, and how it can help the most people.

Water Quality Monitoring: Past

When you mention traditional water quality monitoring in the United States, many people point to the passage of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972 and subsequent laws that address our nation’s water quality and supply as the de facto starting point. In fact, some of the oldest water quality records for parameters like tides and local water temperature date back hundreds of years. Tidal levels were physically being recorded via tide gauges in San Francisco as far back as 1854, and we know of qualitative readings passed down through stories and tales as far back as Ancient Greece. The Clean Water Act, however, marks the beginning of “modern” water quality monitoring as we now know it. The increased structure and accountability lead to a progressive shift from qualitative to quantitative water data collection. A shift that couldn’t have come at a better time for waters in the U.S., as rivers were continually under threat from sewage, re-engineering, and industrial waste, so much so that some rivers were even catching on fire.

The real power in the Clean Water Act is both its precedent and its structure as it helped to officially codify water protections. Overnight, citizens suddenly had an avenue to hold polluters accountable. The Clean Water Act required local, state, and federal governments to collect high quality, defensible water quality data. It was compulsory that these data were collected in a way that produced quality-controlled and, most importantly, structured data; an underappreciated precedent that paved the way for essential practices like baseline monitoring, impaired waters listings, and community-led monitoring. We've built a robust and growing environmental movement with stakeholders from all corners of the sector committed to using the framework designed in the CWA to protect and restore our nation's water sources.

2022 marked the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Across the sector of stakeholders, we came together as a community to reflect on progress and take a real accounting of what 50 years of work brought us. From an outcomes perspective, our movement made some real gains. Rivers no longer feed flames in the shadow of our great cities, modern infrastructure innovation limits sewage flows into waterways, and ecosystems have rebounded where before they were on the brink of collapse. Significant progress has been made, but our communities and waterways still face contemporary problems as illustrated by crises like the sewage pollution in Maui and recent pollution discharge issues in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and Colorado’s Animas River. This doesn’t even begin to address the ongoing drinking water issues in Flint, MI and Jackson, MS, which are covered under the Safe Drinking Water Act — a second important law that intersects with CWA in protecting our water quality. The laws work in tandem because, as of this year, over one-third of the U.S. population draws its drinking water from local rivers and streams. A fact that stands in stark contrast to another — as of 2016, only ~30% of our waterways were monitored by local, state, or federal agencies. But we don't easily see this data, which means the vast majority of decision-makers, from the legislative halls to families looking to cool off on a hot day, are making dangerous conclusions based on a small subset of available data.

Water Quality Monitoring: Present

Recent events demonstrate that water quality issues persist, despite fifty years of federally regulated laws to enhance protections. Pollution issues have gone through a metamorphosis of sorts, the problems we face today are less hyperbolic compared to a river on fire or streams choked with trash, but are no less nefarious. Trash and toxic sludge have been replaced by less visible threats to our waterways, like microplastcs or PFAS, which are no less dangerous but harder for the public to conceptualize. It's easy to galvanize a community around removing trash from a river, but more difficult to inspire behavioral or legislative changes when it comes to less tangible threats.

The water quality framework established by the CWA and refined over the past 50 years in the United States is arranged in a vertical hierarchy of sorts, with most water quality data and information originating at local sources and feeding up to state and federal agencies. The collection of these data is often required by various federal regulations (e.g., CWA,, watershed agreements) and often aggregated in databases that can span across regions, singular states, or the whole country. More often than not, unfortunately, the public does not see a majority of these data. 

Most of this data is collected through various means, whether direct sampling or remote sensors, by responsible agencies through meticulous and quality controlled sampling regimens, ensuring the highest quality data is available to necessary decision makers like state and federal agencies. When this system operates as planned it's a beautiful testament to the power of the CWA and everything it has achieved. Unfortunately, as of 2016, only 30% of U.S. waters were monitored in this manner leaving just under 2 million stream miles left unassessed by local, state, and federal agencies. But why do these deficiencies exist? We like to think it’s not due to a lack of caring but rather a byproduct of government structure and resource allocation. The size and scale of these government monitoring programs boils down to funding, resources, and politics. 

Thankfully, communities have a long history of supporting themselves when responsible parties can’t or refuse to. This reality is the whole raison d’etre for the seemingly boundless non-profit sector in the United States. Community-based fact-finding and collective power for the local good, combined with the accessibility of newer technologies, has led to an explosion of “citizen science” programs across the world enacted by tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, and even concerned neighborhood groups. These efforts aim to answer countless iterations of the same questions, how’s my water quality and why?  Water quality monitoring was one of the first disciplines that embraced community science as the need for local baseline monitoring coupled with frustration in the lack of enforcement against polluters forced concerned citizens and local organizations to stand up and protect their local water resources. 

Photo courtesy of the Izaak Walton League of America

Community-led monitoring programs across the nation have exposed polluters, informed recreation decisions, and even fed data into national databases like DataStream and the Water Quality Exchange. Capacity building efforts like the Water Data Collaborative and EPA's QAPP handbook are working to build the capabilities of non-traditional monitoring systems. Despite these increased efforts, many community groups continue to operate outside the influence of these resources. Theoretical efforts to move the spectrum to increase data quality across the landscape need more on-the-ground investment in time, finances, and expertise development. 

So how does the current water quality landscape look as it stands in 2023? Given the breadth and variety of water quality programs across the county it would be safe to assume that in the 50 years since the CWA we’ve been able to build a vast interconnected water data infrastructure that sees most waterways across the country monitored and protected. As of 2023 you’d be wrong in that assumption. Despite thousands of water data collectors across governments, NGOs, tribal governments, service providers, and academic institutions we still have a fractured national system that suffers from poor communication, siloed data, and lingering distrust across sectors. Even today, we still don’t have an accurate accounting of the number and types of monitoring programs taking place across the country because of these barriers. Collectively we’ve come to a tipping point where technology is no longer the limiting factor in successful water monitoring, people and institutions are. If you know what to search for online, there is no shortage of mapping applications showcasing water quality data results. The problem is that agencies, community groups, and other data producers do not have effective ways to distribute that data in a way that brings about true progress. We should be able to get agencies, community groups, and other data producers to use and share their data to communicate effectively in a way that brings about true progress. The key question is, how do we get there?

Water Quality Monitoring: Future

As with most nuanced issues, there is no one answer to our national water monitoring situation. It would be extreme to say that it needs to be “fixed” but not out of line to say that it needs reimagining. Our current status quo has stagnated, which is only detrimental to the protection of our national waters as the days continue on. In the past few years national coalitions made up of organizations across the water quality sector like the Water Data Collaborative, the Internet of Water Coalition, the US Volunteer Monitoring Network, CUAHSI, and similar regional initiatives have started put in the time and effort into envisioning what future monitoring structures may look like. One of the first steps in addressing these deficiencies is acknowledging what has failed in the past and striving to not make those same mistakes twice. The Clean Water Act encompasses all people and places in the US. Therefore, everyone has an equal stake in the health of our waters so why shouldn’t everyone be included in the conversation. These silos of information, data, knowledge, and funding need to first be knocked down for real collaboration and information sharing to begin.

Through our own experiences at The Commons, and with input from others in the water quality monitoring sector, we’ve identified four (4) key issues that need to be addressed by the water quality community moving into the future:

  • Horizontal communications structure - Community-based monitoring programs have become increasingly successful in collecting high quality water quality data and communicating it throughout the community in a way that has sparked action where other less public programs have failed. In the current system, community data is collected to share with the public and then passed up to state and federal agencies in order to help inform decisions. A vertical communications and data flow from bottom to top can often devalue community groups knowledge and connections in the local community and leads to siloing between government collected data and community-collected data. Moving forward, water quality decisions and conversations must happen at a table where everyone has an equal voice. A “horizontal” structure for communications and data allows for greater knowledge building amongst all stakeholders thanks to the collective knowledge of all involved  and can reduce information and data silos that only hinder our progress on water protections.
  • Build capacity for community programs - Community-based monitoring programs are some of the best at collecting water data for both inclusion in watershed decision making as well as public consumption. However, because of the technical nature of monitoring and its costs it can often be difficult for community organizations to reach the highest level of monitoring competency. We as a collective need to acknowledge this and start dedicating resources in the form of capacity building grants, training, and standard practices. The burden of this capacity building primarily falls on local, state, and federal governments as well as funders and foundations across the country, which can be burdensome for those entities. We need to make a conscious choice to demand prioritization of capacity building and further enhancement of community monitoring programs. Further capacity will increase democratization of data and reinforce data sovereignty, which will enable data collectors to expand distribution of their data to more end users.
  • Expand monitoring and technology literacy - Despite rapid advancements in monitoring and data management technologies, a wide technology literacy gap still exists in the monitoring community. Tied closely with building capacity, ensuring that monitoring volunteers and practitioners alike have a firm grasp of the tools and technology required to collect and share modern water quality data is imperative for the continued success of all monitoring programs. Expanding resources around data management best practices is especially needed as commonplace tools like APIs, visualizations, and open databases are essential tools in expanding the utility of water quality data.
  • Open and standard datasets - Water quality data has become closed off and siloed, where even decision makers in the same agency are clueless to where and what type of data is being collected. The inclusion of community generated water data in larger databases with government data is limited and academic data is often closed off until publication. Universal standards need to be created to better increase the compatibility of data and community generated data needs to be included in larger datasets. We may never get to the point of a singular water quality standard, but clear documentation and communication surrounding the data can bolster data reusability across the sector. When water quality is both more accessible and connected we’re able to make quicker and more decisive decisions involving the health of our waterways. Right now we’re trying to solve a problem by only looking at 30% of the puzzle. 

It’s important to note that these aren’t THE solutions, just progressions that need to be made if we’re to keep moving forward collectively, instead of as disparate forces. Just watch a half hour of your nightly news or browse your daily headlines and you’ll see that our waterways can’t afford for us to fall behind. Whether you represent an agency, institution of higher learning, tribe, community group, or service provider, we all need to be sitting at the same table to meet these problems. We all have knowledge that we can lend and we each have something to learn from one another. We cannot each play every role. The sooner we acknowledge this the sooner we can make significant strides in water resource protection. 

One wonders what our era's hunger stones will be? Centuries from now will they find the fossils of a failed system littered on the bottom of our lifeless rivers and streams? It may seem fatalistic and extreme to think like that, but that legacy is in our hands whether we realize it or not. While water quality monitoring may seem insignificant in the larger picture of water protection, in reality it’s our oldest and most effective tool — one humans have used for generations to better understand their homes and protect the waters that offer us so much.