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Water watch

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Alabama is fortunate to have an abundance of water resources. Along with its aquatic richness comes the responsibility of preserving and nurturing its rivers, lakes and streams. Alabama Water Watch (AWW) challenges citizens by learning how to monitor their own water.

AWW brings this conservation vision to more Alabama residents each year. In the program’s thirtieth year, there is emphasis on sharpening the focus to more water resource goals.

Alabama Water Watch Origins

AWW began in 1992 after the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) approached what is today’s Auburn University School of Fisheries, Aquaculture & Aquatic Sciences with a massive opportunity. A volunteer water quality monitoring program was in the works and had the potential to educate the masses. This aspiration of a new program served as a future solution to combat nonpoint source pollution (NPS).

“By the early 1990s, the Clean Water Act had been in place for a couple of decades and made huge reductions in point source pollution,” said AWW Program Director Mona Dominguez. “These pollution types lead to a particular point of entry such as a wastewater pipe emptying into a stream.”

Dominguez said NPS occurs when suspended and dissolved substances including nutrients, chemicals, toxic materials, loose soil and fecal matter carry to waterbodies. This is normally the result of water that runs over the landscape following rainfall (runoff).

Biodiversity

Ranking fifth nationally in overall biodiversity and first in freshwater aquatic biodiversity, Alabama contains approximately 132,000 miles of water networks. It also has more than 3.6 million acres of wetlands and 560,000 acres of lakes. Protecting the numerous species that call Alabama waters home is crucially important.

“For comparison purposes, consider that Alabama contains 332 species of freshwater species while California, a much larger state, has 41,” claims Dominguez.

Unfortunately, the health of many of Alabama’s aquatic organisms is under attack. As an estimate, 19 percent of freshwater fish species in Alabama are at risk because of pollution and destruction of habitat. Identifying polluted waterbodies is the first step in restoring watershed health. Water monitoring is an effective way to do this.

Fueled by Community

One of the most special aspects of AWW is that it is totally voluntary. The program offers many opportunities for members, including youth and adults, to become certified water monitors.

After completing a required training course, an individual chooses a site to regularly collect water samples. These samples are submitted to AWW, therefore making it public through the online water data portal on the AWW website. This resource allows anyone to view the water quality data in their own communities as well as across the state.

Inspired by Youth

Youth programming is at the forefront of the AWW campaign. In 2013, a partnership was established between AWW and the Alabama 4-H Program to create the official youth water monitoring program, 4-H Alabama Water Watch.

At the same time the program transitioned from the Auburn University School of Fisheries, Aquaculture & Aquatic Sciences to the Auburn University Water Resources Center (AUWRC).

“AWW is a perfect fit for the AUWRC as part of its mission includes ‘empowering private citizens to become active stewards of water resources’,” Dominguez said. “Support for AWW and AUWRC from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station has allowed AWW to evolve and grow to meet the changing needs of our state.”

Water Watch Activities

Aspiring certified AWW members typically conduct three types of water monitoring. Here are a few specializations of the research criteria.

  • Water Chemistry Monitoring – involves testing physical and chemical characteristics of water including pH, dissolved oxygen levels, and turbidity to determine pollution sources and long-term trends in water quality.
  • Bacteriological Monitoring – detects levels of E. coli and other coliforms in water as indicators of fecal contamination and helps to determine if water meets water quality standards for drinking water, swimming, and aquatic life.
  • Stream Biomonitoring – uses benthic macroinvertebrates including crayfish, certain insect larvae and aquatic snails as indicators of water quality.

Overflowing with Progress

Since its launch, AWW certified more than 8,700 citizen scientists. Approximately 103,000 water records from approximately 2,500 sites are currently available through the AWW water quality database. Each one of these collections are solely from Alabama’s volunteers.

The state’s youth are learning about water resources efforts as well. The Alabama 4-H Program reaches more than 36,000 youth about the importance of water quality by its educators.

Future Goals

Thanks to a new hybrid training model, the future is bright for AWW. New additions including self-paced online courses tied to on-site field learning sessions simplify the learning process. This curriculum, originating because of the COVID-19 pandemic, addresses some obstacles that some people may encounter when entering the program. As a result, remote learning at more convenient timing has improved overall participation.

“AWW is dedicates itself to the challenges that prevent participation with its program to encourage more diverse representation of Alabama’s citizens, watersheds, and water quality concerns,” Dominguez said.

More Information

Anyone interested in getting involved with AWW can find information regarding upcoming training opportunities and other educational events on the AWW events page and on the Alabama Extension calendar. In addition, they can sign up to receive the AWW online newsletter by contacting awwprog@auburn.edu and asking to be added to the email list.

For more information on Alabama’s water quality please visit the Alabama Water Watch website.

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