Citizen Science and Protecting our Rivers

Canadians are understandably concerned about the future health of our freshwater resources. We are blessed with water in abundance, and rely on it heavily for food and energy production, recreation, and manufacturing. It is essential to life, good health and well-being. Canadians prize our fresh water as our most precious natural resource.

I’d go so far to say it is an essential part of the Canadian identity: who would we be if we didn’t have clean water to paddle upon, to swim in or to fish in? Imagine how our lives and standard of living would change if we no longer had clean water to drink – if our shores were so polluted, that to stand along them would be nauseating rather than calming.

We are so fortunate to have the fourth-largest reserves of freshwater the world over. We cannot, however, take all of this for granted. Indeed, there are indications that an increasing number of Canadians are not, and want to be more involved in local decisions about the future of our waters.

This is why we see today the rise of citizen science and stewardship – people who prize our waters so much they are rolling up their sleeves and putting on waders to help monitor the health of the waters in their neighbourhoods and communities.

We see the benefits of this at the Canadian Rivers Institute, hosted at the University of New Brunswick, as we carry on in our mission to make every river in the country a healthy river. This is a lofty goal that we have worked toward for 15 years, through the aquatic science of our international network of researchers, students, partners and collaborators.

But we know that we cannot do it alone.  That is why one of our core goals has been to train highly qualified water resources scientists, professionals, policymakers and citizens across Canada.

Essentially, while our researchers work on the science to define a “healthy” river, we also endeavour to build the team needed to monitor, protect and restore our waters across the country.

One way we do this is through our partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada to deliver nationally standardized methods for assessing river health that community groups and citizen volunteers can use to become stewards of their local rivers and streams. 

Since the program began in 2008, we have trained and sent back out to waterways across the country more than 1,000 new water stewards. They have, in turn, trained hundreds of others in their communities to do the same. (For more information on the program, called CABIN, visit

Through online and field workshops in regions across Canada each summer and fall, we teach enthusiastic participants three core areas: how to collect bugs, how to identify the bugs and how to analyze what bugs tell them about a river’s health.

Invertebrates, and their diversity, are a good scientific indicator of water quality, and they are also a tangible way for people to see the connection between aquatic life and river health, making the methods fun and engaging citizen science tools.

The data collected at a river or stream site is compared to regional reference sites within the national database. These reference sites are the healthiest, naturally occurring rivers and streams without, or with very little, human impacts. The comparison shows whether or not the bug composition in the river or stream is similar or different than a healthy stream in the region.

The nationally collected data has become key information used by the federal government in its monitoring, assessment and action programming in watersheds and waterways across the country. It has been, and continues to be, used in water quality status and trends reporting – in programs such as the Georgia Basin Action Plan, the Lake Winnipeg Basin Initiative and the St. Lawrence Action Plan; all of which aim to maintain or restore healthy, productive and sustainable ecosystems and communities.

It is used when assessing areas of concern to restore water quality by cleaning up severely contaminated and degraded locations around the Great Lakes, in ecological monitoring to ensure the natural integrity of our national parks, and to inform government-led industrial site remediation activities.

Provincial and territorial governments have also adopted the program in environmental impact assessments of industrial projects which require mitigating the potential impacts to water quality.

In addition to contributing to government policies, programs, and decisions, there are thousands of organizations across the country using the data to drive local initiatives for cleaning up and protecting waterways. Community-based river and lake associations protect eroding riverbanks, recreate lost wetlands and restore in-stream fish habitat.

We continue to tackle challenges – toxins that find their way into our waters, runoff pollution from our lands, extreme rains, flooding and drought brought on by climate change, to name but a few.

To be most effective as guardians of our most precious resource, we welcome more engaged citizens as stewards of our waterways.

By growing the capacity and the information to make better science-based decisions, we can help ensure Canada’s most valuable resource is clean and healthy – a legacy most Canadians want to pass on to their children.

Dr. Michelle Gray is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management at the University of New Brunswick and a science director with the Canadian Rivers Institute.

Originally published in the Telegraph Journal, July 4, 2016