Water Reporter in Action

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper
Water Reporter
March 29, 2022
Water Reporter in Action

The Commons team first met members of the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper (BNW) team during the National Waterkeeper Alliance Conference in 2018, which happened to take place on their home turf of Buffalo, New York. Staff from BNW kept telling our team that we had to talk to their water quality monitoring coordinator, Elizabeth Cute, that she was looking for ways to manage and visualize data and that Water Reporter sounded like a good fit. Of course, even though 500 plus Waterkeepers and their entourages had descended on their city, Cute was out in the field managing her volunteers and monitoring program. We only met at the tail end of the conference with plans to connect online later. We were excited; her dedication and commitment to innovative and grow her monitoring program was obvious to us from day one.

Waterkeepers convene and raise their arms in celebration at Niagara Falls in spring 2018.
Waterkeepers convene at Niagara Falls in spring 2018

It’s amazing the value of listening to someone you meet at a conference. Crossing paths was fortuitous and timely, as it seems to be with the majority of the groups that use the Water Reporter platform. BNW was looking for a way to show monitoring data results on an interactive map and The Commons had just released a version of Water Reporter’s Data Manager that allowed groups to manage their data, create thresholds and indicators, and then place those data sources on an interactive map. Our support of this program has continued as their efforts have expanded, continuing to manage and showcase the results through Water Reporter and create a baseline that fosters further collaboration across both the region and stakeholder groups.

Introduction to the Buffalo Niagara Watershed

New York is a Great Lakes State. The Niagara River Watershed is located along the westernmost portion of New York State. It encompasses lands that drain into the Niagara River and, believe it or not, the River connects the Great Lakes of Erie AND Ontario. The watershed encompasses 903,305 acres of land. Within the watershed boundaries are more than 70 municipalities and over 3,000 miles of water.

Map showing delineation of all watersheds in the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper area of work.

BNW is tasked with overseeing Lake Erie shoreline and a sliver of Lake Ontario and all of the watersheds draining towards it. BNW works throughout the watershed, from headwater streams to the majestic Niagara Falls. Their work includes the protection, preservation, restoration, and monitoring of these waterbodies and surrounding ecosystems.

Founding of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper

In the 1960s, the Buffalo River was officially declared biologically dead by the federal government. Heavy industrial use along the river, including steel and coke factories that operated along the riverbanks for decades, helped drive the economy in the industrial age, but their operations decimated water quality and left the river in ruin. In fact, the Buffalo River caught fire in the 1960s.

Old grain factory juts out into waterway.
Cargill Pool Grain Elevator in Buffalo. Wikimedia Commons, Yatpay c/of

Since that time, local non-profit organizations and government agencies have worked together to clean up the river. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, the same group that started as an all-volunteer organization (Friends of the Buffalo River) of concerned citizens over 30 years ago, has led the collaborative partnership in the restoration of the Buffalo River, and has been recognized internationally for their success in this effort.

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper has been a guardian of Western New York’s freshwater for over 30 years, and the vanguard for regional efforts to bring the Buffalo River back to life. They work to protect the water, restore the waterways and surrounding ecosystems, connect people to the waterways, and inspire both economic activity and civic engagement along the waterways.

BNW Staff stand together in an outdoor park.
Photo credit: Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper

Now their work spans over 1,400 square miles over five counties and more than 60 annual projects within a variety of programs. The Blueway Program creates new and equitable water access. Living Shorelines and Headwaters Programs restore and conserve lands. And their array of Community Engagement programs mobilize volunteers, educate students and community members, and conduct monitoring work and citizen science .

Counting on the Monitoring Program

What are the water quality conditions across the Buffalo and Niagara River Watersheds? Has all of the investment in restoration resulted in improved water quality and safe waterways?

These are questions that we can best explore by referencing baseline data. Thankfully, BNW had the foresight to build up a robust monitoring program and data set. With over a decade of baseline data, analysts at BNW can now compare their monthly sample results to New York State Standards and share analyzed results to all stakeholders. BNW staff can internally understand the conditions of waterways throughout the watershed, engage community members, and participate in regional efforts to externally aggregate and turn data into actionable information.

Riverwatch: the Flagstone Citizen Science Program

The Riverwatch Citizen Science Program has been a pillar of BNW’s education and engagement work since 2010. The program engages volunteers to gather important water quality data. Originally, program managers provided volunteers with test tablets and basic equipment and encouraged them to conduct the sampling. In order to get more mileage out of the collected data, the program upgraded to Eureka Manta 20+ and Hach turbidimeter water probes.

In the current version of the Riverwatch monitoring program, volunteers head out to pre-selected sites once a month, on a pre-scheduled day. As we’ll discuss further along in this use case, these necessary requirements limit the number of people who can participate in this program.

The baseline water chemistry volunteers collect location, date, temperature, pH, conductivity, total dissolved solids, and turbidity data throughout the Niagara River Watershed. All results are compared to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation water quality standards.

The BNW staff manage the program to have multi-data end uses, including visualizing results on the website, creating an annual report, educating students via school programs, and presenting collected information to elected officials and community leaders.

Volunteers are encouraged to keep their “eyes on the water” and report spills and collect photographs, aka visual observation data.

Use of Water Reporter

Prior to the adoption of Water Reporter, BNW managed their water quality monitoring data on excel spreadsheets. Each station and each year had a different spreadsheet. In short, the data was poorly structured for proper machine-readable storage. In order to optimize data management and sharing for visualization, analysis, and decision-making purposes, BNW needed to revisit how they structured their data.

Making Data Machine-Readable

Our first task back in 2018, was to reformat the data so that it could be easily and repeatedly ingested into Water Reporter. This simple but time-consuming task restructured the existing data into a file with consistent nomenclature, removal of non-formatted cells (such as text in cells that needed to be strings and removal of rogue special characters), and deletion of empty rows. Once we had restructured the data to be machine-readable, we could easily upload it into the custom-created data source.

Making a Riverwatch Water Reporter Data Source

The BNW Riverwatch data has collected data on seven parameters since 2014. Nothing in the monitoring program had to change in order to use Water Reporter. The parameters follow clear threshold and indicator rules that help analysts and the general public make sense of the raw data. BNW shared this metadata information with the Water Reporter team so that they could build out the data source to meet their specifications. This build out included labeling the threshold ranges for each of the parameters that had a threshold value. Once all of the core components had been added, BNW could simply upload their spreadsheet of machine-readable data. Once in the system, all of the raw data continued to be accessible for review and export. Also, BNW could now take advantage of the most coveted feature: Maps.

Building BNW Maps in Water Reporter

The original BNW Riverwatch Map in Water Reporter showed both continuous monitoring data and observational data. In total, the map displayed over five years of data at more than 80 stations. This map was placed on the Riverwatch page of the BNW website where anyone could visit and interact with the data.

Map of monitoring program data points.
Link to Riverwatch webpage:

When the time comes for BNW to put together their annual Riverwatch Report, the team often grabs snapshots of the data and inserts them next to the more detailed narrative of the trends, impacts, activities, and volunteer accomplishments.

Photo Credit & Source: Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper Website

Outcomes from the Riverwatch Program

Baseline data serves a noble albeit unremarkable purpose until something happens. Boring is good! But data doesn’t make headlines or move needles if it stays constantly ‘ok’. Luckily, dedicated volunteers keep showing up and doing their monitoring and, sometimes, they pick out trends that indicate a problem that needs further action.

Photo Credit & Source: Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper Website

Cute explained that back in 2019, for example, Riverwatch volunteers recorded consistently high conductivity and turbidity levels downstream of a golf course. This resulted in conversations with the town’s conservation board, Waterkeeper, the NYSDEC, and the golf course owners. BNW eventually wrote a grant to work on a restoration project to address the source of the erosion. After completion of the project, BNW held an educational webinar to train/inform more regional golf course personnel about the application of these BMPs on their courses. The Riverwatch volunteers were able to identify and build a legitimate case that may help golf-courses across the region improve their awareness and response to water quality issues without ruining playability for golfers.

Expanded Water Reporter Data Sources to meet growing Community Science Program

Beyond the baseline water chemistry program, BNW offers volunteers opportunities to participate in additional monitoring activities. These include submitting photos of pollution, sampling for plastic nurdle data, and reporting Harmful Algal Blooms. The spectrum of monitoring options intends to provide willing volunteers with a variety of opportunities from which to choose — each which requires a different time commitment and level of training. The data collected from each of these monitoring programs is also summarized in the yearly Riverwatch Citizen Science Water Quality Report and is viewable online on a dedicated webpage that shows data managed in Water Reporter.

Bacterial Monitoring

Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper Staff collect water samples in Western New York and analyze for Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. Sample sites are either popular for water recreation or near combined sewer outfalls. Combined Sewer Outfalls can bring in untreated sewage into local waterways during wet weather events. E. coli is a species within the fecal coliform group that is specifically associated with the fecal waste of warm-blooded animals. E. coli is a strong indicator of sewage pollution or animal waste contamination when found in local waterways.

For example, with the Bacterial monitoring program, recognizing the proximity of the measurements to CSOs (combined sewage overflow) locations helps give critical context to monitoring locations. As a first step, Cute and her team had to track down the coordinates of all of the CSO locations — even just getting those visualized on a map represents an impressive feat!

Map shows dots of known CSO locations within the watershed.
Map displays known locations of CSOs.

After doing the hard work of finding and recording all of the CSO locations, Cute created a layer indicating all known CSOs for the Water Reporter map. Compared to tracking down the locations, there was minimal effort to make a layer of the CSO locations and add it to the base map.

Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring

A Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) contains organisms that can produce toxins. Most algae are harmless and are components of an aquatic ecosystem. HABs are likely to occur in slow moving water with excess nutrients. HABs are harmful to people and animals. Since it is hard to identify a HAB from non-harmful algal blooms, it’s important to avoid recreating and drinking the water when a bloom is suspected. In WNY, HABs are blooms of cyanobacteria, often referred to as Blue Green Algae.

Map shows a grip holding a glass smothered in a green algae substance while taking a sample from green water.

Most HAB monitoring relies on people going out and identifying potential HAB occurrences and reporting them to scientists with the capacity to conduct more rigorous analysis. Therefore, HABs should be reported directly to the NY State Department of Conservation. However, BNW has also created a Water Reporter map to create a long-term ledger/atlas of all of the HABs that they have reported. The map showcases photos and dates. Water Reporter offers a better option for data management than a spreadsheet and the visual, interactive map is a much more effective sharing medium than a list of dates and descriptions.

Because this data needed follow-up analysis, BNW elected to make a separate Water Reporter map and share the results on a different page of their website.

Map of HAB Data on BNW Website.

Excitingly, when data is presented in a way that both looks good and speaks to a clear message, it makes for excellent distribution content. In 2020, Congressman Brian Higgins tweeted about Harmful Algal Blooms and referenced the map compiled by BNW.

Tweet by Congressman Brian Higgins that references BNW’s work in HAB monitoring, displayed via a Water Reporter map.

Expanding Inclusion in Monitoring Programs

In 2020, BNW undertook an organization-wide assessment of how they could improve access to their programs to a broader constituency. They recognized pretty quickly that the requirements for participating in the Riverwatch Program excluded a lot of people. For example, participants had to commit to being available during daytime hours once a month. They had to have access to a car, be able to move around in overgrown areas, and have time to donate not only to conducting monthly monitoring but also to pre-sampling season training. To offer monitoring opportunities on a more ad hoc basis and with less of a time commitment, BNW created an observational monitoring program. In this program, they encourage anyone with a smartphone to take photos of possible pollution and submit those observations to BNW via Water Reporter. But why stop at pollution? The team emails out a monthly photo challenge for participants, encouraging people to share observations on everything from wildlife, road salt, hardened shorelines, and the waterways being enjoyed. All of these photos give a window into what their volunteers see and encourage them to get out and enjoy their waterways in different ways.

The intent is to continue to engage with concerned citizens throughout their watershed, gain eyes in communities that may currently be underrepresented in the monitoring efforts, and respond to requests to engage that are respectful of people who may not want to or be able to commit to more long-term volunteer offerings.

Participating in Regional Efforts: Smart Citizen Science Initiative

In 2020, Cleveland Water Alliance launched the Smart Citizen Science Initiative. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper joined eleven other organizations as inaugural Champions in the Initiative. All Champions were asked to manage their data in Water Reporter so that it could easily be structured and included in regional visualizations. Because BNW had already spent the time making their data machine-readable, participation in this effort required almost no lift from a data management perspective. Thanks to having a machine-readable data source ready to go, they were able to amplify use of their monitoring data and demonstrate the value of managing machine-readable data through Water Reporter.

The SCSI, through The Commons, built a web-widget that shows all of the locations of monitoring activity across the Lake Erie Region. The widget is portable, meaning that all of the Champions can easily embed it into their own websites. In fact, you can check out the regional web widget directly within the Water Quality section of the BNW website. This 10,000 foot regional view presented on the same page as the local work is, hopefully, the future direction of water quality monitoring: recognizing the impact and value of both regional and local efforts. As the SCSI program grows, the Lake Erie widget will update and as BNW adds more data to their Riverwatch program, their analysis will be presented to audiences through their website, as well.

Special Thanks to Elizabeth Cute for her help in putting together this case study and providing excellent feedback and insight into BNW’s monitoring work.