An annual tradition enables citizens to investigate what’s in their water

More than 1.5 million people worldwide have participated in World Water Monitoring Day activities since the event was established in 2003.

The City of Boulder has had its share of issues with drinking water over the last few years. Perhaps you read about elevated levels of chromium-6 (the contaminant discussed at length in Erin Brockovich) in a 2014 article in Boulder Weekly, or maybe you’ve seen more recent coverage of the elevated levels of haloacetic acids at Betasso Water Treatment Plant in the Daily Camera last year.

For the average citizen, it can be intimidating to read about what’s in our water. Most of us don’t have much science education beyond high school-level chemistry, so it can be difficult to understand just how much of a given chemical or compound is in our water — let alone how scientists and city officials go about monitoring those levels, and whether they’re high enough to have negative effects on our health.

That knowledge gap was the impetus for World Water Monitoring Day, which America’s Clean Water Foundation established in 2003 as a way to commemorate the 1972 enactment of the Clean Water Act. The event was originally celebrated on the law’s anniversary, Oct. 18, but has since been moved to its current date, Sept. 18.

“Turns out it gets pretty cold in October, especially up north,” explains Sean Russell, the Water Challenge Program Manager for EarthEcho International, which now sponsors the event. “It’s harder to monitor water when it’s frozen.”

To date, Russell says, more than 1.5 million citizen scientists from 146 countries have monitored their local waterways as part of World Water Monitoring Day activities, including more than 40,000 people last year. Participants have ranged from local environmental education nonprofits to school groups to families, and Russell emphasizes that monitoring one’s water supply is easier than you might think.

“It’s something we’ve tried to make really accessible,” he says, adding that many families with young kids participate.

River Watch of Colorado also offers year-round volunteer water-monitoring opportunities funded in part by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and operated by Earth Force. Whether as individuals, school groups or other stake holders, the volunteer stewards monitor not only water quality but other indicators of watershed health in an effort to compile high-quality data that can be used for education efforts and to inform decision-makers about the health of Colorado’s waterways.

In addition to participating in World Water Monitoring Day, nearly 2,000 volunteers around the state collect samples each month through River Watch, monitoring heavy metals, pH, alkalinity, hardness, dissolved oxygen and temperature at designated sites. They also collect nutrient samples biannually and monitor the physical habitat of their site once a year.

That’s not to say the City of Boulder isn’t closely monitoring its water. “Overall, we conduct more than 25,000 drinking water quality tests in a year,” says Kate Dunlap, the source water quality program coordinator with the City’s public works department. The City also “routinely samples nearly 100 locations in the distribution system for chlorine residual, bacteria, disinfection byproducts, lead, copper, pH, alkalinity, and calcium hardness.”

The City of Boulder “goes above and beyond regulatory requirements to ensure safe drinking water and monitors for potential changes in water quality,” Dunlap says, and points out that citizens can learn about the City’s findings on its drinking water quality webpage. “We are in the process of updating our drinking water website to improve and facilitate customer access to water information and data.”

In the meantime, Boulderites — or anyone, for that matter, around the globe — can sign up to volunteer on World Water Monitoring Day. Though the Sept. 18 event is a rallying cry for citizen scientists to get involved in local water quality monitoring, the EarthEcho Water Challenge and River Watch’s efforts are a year-round affair: they’ll happily take data from those monitoring their water at any time.

The publicly available water quality data collected by citizens, “may be used by local environmental education nonprofits for their own restoration efforts, or it could be used by government officials,” says Russell, who encourages citizens to look up historical data for their waterways as well.

Both organizations also provide tools for organizing your own water-monitoring group and protecting water resources.

In other words, Russell says, monitoring your local water quality is just the first step. “It’s a starting point to get people connected to these issues,” he says. “It’s that first step to learning more and taking action.”