Workshop on developing river monitoring for citizen scientists

On behalf of WTT, I recently attended a workshop coordinated by Dr Murray Thompson (a former MSc student of mine), the aim of which was to brainstorm on how to extend and develop river monitoring of restoration projects, particularly for citizen scientists. The workshop was generously supported by Ross Brawn, a good friend and supporter of WTT. The discussions were wide ranging and there were some interesting viewpoints raised by the various contributors (from the Environment Agency, Wildlife Trusts and Rivers Trusts, academia, consultancies, the River Restoration Centre etc).

Why? Well, in the limited number of cases where monitoring (to determine whether the restoration has achieved what it set out to do) is actually considered, then the cost of that monitoring typically is a part of an already limited restoration budget. Funding before and after sample collection, particularly in the longer-term, is not always available. However, the lack of coordinated standardised restoration monitoring has led to a paucity of knowledge about the effectiveness of restoration projects. Where monitoring has been undertaken, the sampling methodologies used were often originally conceived to detect pollution but may be incompatible for detecting ecological recovery. 

How? Coordinated, standardised before-after-control-impact (BACI) monitoring and data collation will mean restorations can be compared within and across catchments. This will help to:

  • inform and refine the design process;
  • demonstrate the success and importance of restoration; and
  • secure restoration funding in the future.

In addition, by simply counting the number of active volunteers using a protocol, it is possible to gauge the societal impact of restoration projects which is often critical information when applying for future funding. 

Murray introduced a device that he has been trialling with an MSc student that can detect an ecological restoration signal which has previously proved elusive. The information is an advance on the Riverfly Partnership RMI data, it is quantitative and there are multiple indicators bound up in one methodology — density and diversity of invertebrates combined with ecosystem functioning: microbial and invertebrate mediated decomposition rates. The approach is still relatively simple and could thus be applied by citizen scientists.

We were mindful that volunteer monitoring cannot replace professional or academic monitoring — which is still essential to develop a causal understanding of successful ecological restoration — but rather could provide more widespread and more frequent complementary data than perhaps could be undertaken by professionals or academics. Where possible, it should be an aim to partner academic and volunteer based monitoring so each informs the other and to integrate data from multiple sources (e.g. data from the EA inc. water quality, invertebrate and fish populations, FreshWater Watch, Urban River Survey, RMI) so there is no duplication of effort. The workshop was great for establishing how this might work best with some interesting ideas about how eDNA could be used, for instance, and how data are shared by the Rivers Trusts already and how this might develop.

A next step that was discussed would be to embellish the method that Murray has developed with some simple measures of geomorphological change, train several catchment hubs on how to apply the protocol, and trial it to refine a citizen science-based approach. A draft protocol based on the workshop discussions and existing methods (e.g. PRAGMO, Urban River Survey) is being drawn up to ensure the approach will capture key variables associated with restoration that also relate to the ecological variables measured. It will be important to establish, for instance, how local efforts contribute to the catchment restoration plan and how catchment processes (or stressors, e.g. poor water quality) affect local restoration projects.

Updates on this initiative will follow.