Water Rangers’ community-based water monitoring helps close the climate change data gap
With the effects of global warming accelerating in 2023, the need to keep a close eye on the local environment is more urgently felt. A non-profit founded in the Outaouais called Water Rangers is taking concrete steps to respond to the challenge of gathering local climate data by empowering communities in the region to monitor the health of nearby lakes and rivers, and to share their findings with the rest of Canada. Over the past year, Water Rangers collaborated with the municipality of Val-des-Monts to collect data on 47 lakes in the region and will be collecting data on a further 50 lakes in 2024. Cottage Living interviewed Kat Kavanagh, Water Rangers founder and executive director, and Laura Gilbert, Water Rangers community and operations manager to learn more about their work and the importance of community-based water testing in the Outaouais.
Water Rangers provides easy to use test-kits and training to community organizations and individuals for testing and monitoring local bodies of water. Kavanagh founded the organization in Val-des-Monts after being inspired by her father’s initiative to monitor conditions on a local lake, “The idea for Water Rangers came from watching my father do water monitoring over 20 years. He had a filing cabinet full of data but no easy way to share it with the community.” In 2015, Kavanagh entered the Ottawa River Hackathon, a competition designed to develop creative ways to use technology to address water problems. She proposed a data sharing platform that allowed anyone from the public to upload water quality data online. While the proposal was successful, an accompanying public education piece was needed, “We soon realized that people didn’t know which tools to use to test their local bodies of water. In 2016 we then developed curated test kits.”
Water Rangers has since distributed more than 5,500 test kits and has over 200,000 data points from over 6,300 sites on its online platform. The organization has trained over 25,000 people and more than 295 groups and organizations currently use the platform. Education initiatives have included around 500 teachers who have trained over 15,000 youth. Kavanagh said that over the past several years the program has helped non-specialists feel empowered to teach others about the science of water testing, “Once people learn how to test, it's really easy. Many begin to teach others right away and find it very empowering.”
Gilbert, who manages partnerships in Quebec and Water Rangers’ education programs, highlighted how community-based water monitoring is an important way to get an accurate picture of local water quality and to ensure decisions affecting local bodies of water are well-informed, “Canada is very data deficient in terms of water quality data for lakes, rivers and streams. A World Wildlife Fund report in 2020 found that 60% of sub-watersheds across Canada did not have enough data to even determine whether or not they were healthy. That’s a huge data gap,” said Gilbert. “We need that local data to make evidence-based decisions. If we don’t have that information, then we don’t really know what’s happening and we aren’t sure what impact proposed solutions are going to have. We need to have good baseline data about water bodies before we can do anything to address problems,” she added. Gilbert said that those using the online platform can make their data publicly accessible to government decision makers, researchers, and other community groups as well as other services such as DataStream.
In 2023 Water Rangers partnered with the municipality of Val-des-Monts to help residents test lakes identified as high-risk for human impacts such as those near roads, housing developments and farmland. While the municipality already had a water monitoring program in place since 2021, it was difficult to test consistently throughout the year and lake associations had to bring samples to Ottawa in order to be analyzed. “A lot of people in Val-des-Monts were quite concerned about what is happening and have already noticed some changes. We created a custom test kit for the municipality which allowed residents to test locally and more often, even during the months where lab testing wasn’t available,” said Gilbert. A total of 74 volunteers from local organizations and groups participated in the project. 47 lakes were monitored in 2023, and another 50 will be added next year.
Samantha Rhainds, an environmental consultant for the municipality of Val-des-Monts who is leading the program, expects the number of volunteers to further increase over the next year, “It’s a huge project, there are some municipal staff that work on this but really we count on our lake associations and volunteers for success,” said Rhainds in a video covering the first year of the project.
How to get involved
Both Kavanagh and Gilbert emphasized that water monitoring is simple and that most people have been able to test and upload data successfully after watching one of their 20-minute training videos. Testing involves taking a series of measurements such as water temperature, mineral conductivity, chlorine levels, pH value, alkalinity, water hardness, oxygen levels and clarity. The most important thing for good water monitoring is consistency, “When people go out testing it is important that they go as consistently as they can at the same time of day in order to get a sense of what normal conditions are. We say you have to test at least monthly to get a good data set – that helps you understand what normal levels are and when you start to see values that are off,” said Gilbert.
To learn more about Water Rangers and to get involved visit https://www.waterrangers.ca/. All testing equipment is available for purchase on the website, and prices range depending on the kind of testing that is being carried out. A standard test kit costs $360 and all kits are refillable. Water Rangers also holds calls for special programs on social media and is opening to partner with local organizations to set up citizen water monitoring programs.
For more information about the Val-des-Monts project and to watch a film on the project, visit their website: https://www.waterrangers.ca/projects/val-des-monts/