Monitoring for Lake Health: A Case Study
The Town of Invermere sits nestled between the Purcell and Rocky Mountain ranges in southeast British Columbia. The town straddles Windermere Lake, a mountain lake in the headwaters of the Columbia River. The striking beauty and recreational opportunities offered by the Lake Winderemere region draws thousands to the area each summer. Although the official population of Inveremere and the surrounding area is around 5,000, the summertime population is exponentially larger.
Given these population pressures, the community around Lake Windermere has had concerns about impacts of development and human activities on water quality, which is also a drinking water source for some residents. In 2005, Wildsight started the Lake Windermere Project to protect and enhance the quality of the lake by fostering cooperation, conducting scientific water quality monitoring, and undertaking public education and outreach. When the project ended, a group of community members banded together to carry on the work, forming the Lake Windermere Ambassadors (LWA) as a non-profit society.
Over 11 years, the robust community-based watershed monitoring program has produced a wealth of data about the lake. I caught up with LWA’s Program Coordinator, Megan Peloso, to chat with her about the program.
How does the community-based watershed monitoring program work?
The program depends on one staff person (the Program Coordinator), a student intern who joins the team during the summer months, a team of volunteers including board members representing different community interests, and citizen scientists. The Program Coordinator works with the intern to train about 15-20 citizen scientists each year.
Every Tuesday from June until mid-September, a staff member and one or more citizen scientists head out a boat donated by the District of Invermere to take water samples at north, south and mid-points in the lake. They record indicators like air and water temperature, water depth, pH, conductivity, and dissolved oxygen. Results are posted on their Facebook page, and in a newspaper column called Pulse Check, published weekly in the Inveremere Echo. The monitoring team also sends water samples to a lab on a monthly basis in the summer time to check for nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen.
Additionally, LWA and citizen scientists do water flow and velocity monitoring at Windermere Creek--the largest tributary to Lake Winderemere--once a month as partners in the Columbia Basin Water Quality Monitoring project. This monitoring uses protocols of the CABIN program, which are later added to the national database.
How do volunteers participate in the program?
Of the 15-20 citizen scientists that participate in the program each year, most of them are new to community-based watershed monitoring.
“We try to actively recruit new people, but there are some people who love coming out for sampling, and want to make it part of their summer, so we would never turn them away,” Megan chuckles.
Most volunteers get in touch with LWA because they hear about the project through word of mouth, or they read about it in weekly Pulse Check column. In addition to listing sampling results, the Pulse Check column does a weekly profile on each volunteer citizen scientist. The column includes a picture of the volunteer, and a quote about what they enjoyed or learned.
“It’s a fun way to bring attention to the program,” Megan notes.
Megan notes how this past summer, there has been a surge of interest from young people who want to participate in the monitoring program, including local indigenous youth. This is in large part due to their partnership with Akisqnuk First Nation.
Although many people sign up willingly because they’ve heard or read about the program, LWA also does some active recruitment at town events or festivals. In addition to the water monitoring program, recruits also participate in spring and fall shoreline cleanups and other stewardship and restoration activities.
How does LWA ensure the data is rigorous?
There are several checks and balances that LWA uses to ensure results are robust. Training sessions at the beginning of the season are mandatory for summer interns. Citizen scientists are always accompanied by a staff member when they are collecting lake water samples, which helps to ensure that the proper protocol is followed.
“We’re not sending people to figure this stuff out on their own,” Megan tells me. “At the same time, the tests we’re doing don’t require prior expertise in sampling, just an interest in learning.” There are simple protocols in place that help to ensure the data are valid and reliable.
Further, data points are compared to historic and other regional data to put them in context. If there is one point that is notably different than patterns have suggested, it could be an indicator of human error, and will be reviewed more closely. Sometimes, abnormal results can be the cause of an unusual weather pattern or some other event, which is why observations are noted of temperature, wind direction, and other factors each day. When considered as part of a whole picture, exceptional results often make sense when compared to other data points. For example, Megan notes that if turbidity is really high, we might expect dissolved oxygen to be low. In other words, monitoring data can help to tell the story of the symbiotic nature of the lake’s ecosystem.
“No sampling program is free of the occasional error, misinterpretation, or planning mishap” Megan notes. But since LWA’s program always has a trained staff member to assist citizen scientists, the risk of human error is minimized.
Valid and reliable data depend on functioning equipment, so LWA also regularly works with people with technical expertise--like the BC Lake Stewardship Society or local limnologists--to ensure equipment is updated and calibrated following the correct standards.
If, after the aforementioned checks, sampling results still seem off, LWA will consult with other groups and practitioners to ask if they are also seeing similar results in other water bodies.
“If we have notable results outside of a typical trend or what we would expect to see,” she explains, “we’ll look at our own procedure, and ask other neighboring groups if they’ve had similar findings.” Consulting with other monitoring programs is not only a good way to triangulate data, but helps to build and deepen knowledge regarding the implementation of community-based water monitoring programs.
Finally, when LWA sends water samples to the lab for testing, they periodically send blanks (e.g. distilled water) or replicates along with regular field samples. This is a quality assurance measure, since distilled water has very different chemical and biological properties than lake or creek water, results from the labs should reflect these differences.
What kind of information has the program produced about Lake Windermere?
With over a decade of good data, the monitoring program points to some trends. For example, temperature data suggest that the lake is tending toward warming earlier in the season, and that it typically isn’t frozen as much or as long as in years past. Freshet also seems to be taking place earlier, especially in the springs of 2014 and 2015. The depth of the lake tends to be lower earlier in the summer season than ten years ago, and Megan has noticed that boaters seem to be removing their boats from the lake earlier as well.
Megan postulates that these trends could be associated with climate change, and if they continue, could have adverse impacts on lake health, especially on aquatic organisms that are sensitive to temperatures changes.
In 2014-2015, the same years when freshet happened earlier and more intensely than usual, LWA observed an upward trends in nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen entering the lake. “We’re very sensitive to monitoring this,” Megan explains, “since it can be hard to reverse or restore a lake once it has become eutrophic” (i.e. oversupplied with nutrients). Historically, Lake Windermere is oligotrophic (i.e. low in productivity), so a large increase in nutrients could upset the balance.
“So, we’re monitoring this on a regular basis and encouraging industry and homeowners to adopt land use practices that minimize nutrient inputs into the lake,” she says.
How is the data used?
In addition to posting weekly sampling results on their Facebook page and in Pulse Check, LWA creates an annual report that summarizes the data and analyzes trends. The reports are publicly available on their website. LWA also sends the report to staff at local government offices and First Nations.
Data collected from the monitoring program has been used by government to help guide the development of a couple key policy pieces. The BC Ministry of the Environment used the data to help refine its water quality parameters for Lake Windermere. And local government used the information to inform the Lake Windermere Management Plan, a document to guide land use decisions and human activities around Lake Windermere. The plan, which was adopted by the Regional District of East Kootenay and District of Invermere in 2011, was informed by the Lake Windermere Project, extensive public consultation, and it lays out support for continuing the a community-based water monitoring program through the LWA.
Data derived from water quality monitoring program also inform LWA’s education and outreach program, which engages residents, tourists, and students throughout the year.
What challenges are associated with delivering the community-based water monitoring program?
While there is value in the adage that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, it is not so that the results of robust monitoring programs are always used by managers to make evidence-informed decisions.
Although monitoring continues to inform the Lake Windermere Management Plan, Megan observes that there are some gaps between policy and practice. “I do think that local government sees the value of [our monitoring program], but I would be happy if the data was used more consistently to inform land-use decisions,” she notes.
Another challenge is communicating the data in a way that engages a broad segment of the population on the importance of Lake Windermere. “It’s not always easy to make lake health relevant for everyone,” Megan tells me. Because Invermere has such a large transient population of vacationers, it can be hard to reach people who may have less civic ties than the permanent population. This is a population that does have a stake in the program though, since vacationers are likely to engage more frequently in water recreation activities while visiting.
“Getting all your audiences involved can be a challenge, but I like to think of it as a fun challenge [...] This is what the Lake Windermere Ambassadors live for: making sure we’re connecting with people that aren’t as easy to reach out to!” Megan remarks. In order to reach diverse populations, LWA focuses on the shared values of the lake--helping people to understand that lake health has implications for the environment, human health, the economy, recreators, etc.
Access to sustainable sources of funding is a challenge that most community-based, non-profit groups are acutely aware of. Although LWA has been lucky to receive funding for this program from the Local Conservation Fund--a unique parcel tax administered by the Kootenay Conservation Program--the Regional District of East Kootenay, and the District of Invermere, funding from these programs is awarded on a yearly basis.
“Monitoring needs long term sustainable funding. It’s not a one-off project. It’s not as valuable if you’re doing it one year, then taking a break for a season. It really needs consistent dedication and commitment,” Megan explains.
Finally, Megan tells me about the challenge of keeping up with the desire for information. This is especially relevant in light of recent water policy developments in British Columbia.
“With all the information that is going to be needed to create a true picture of watershed health, especially with the [implementation and rollout] of the Water Sustainability Act in B.C., there is going to be a desire to really know more about our watersheds for the purpose of managing resources as smartly as possible.”
LWA’s program is focused on water quality, but Megan notes that monitoring water quantity is also very important, and something that she’d like to see featured as strongly in their monitoring program in the future. However, expanding their monitoring program would necessitate more capacity, and funding. Inspiration is not far away, however, as the Columbia Lake Stewardship Society, a community water group just South of Lake Windermere, has been able to accumulate two years of water quantity data thanks to some incredible volunteer expertise and commitment.
What do you think are some of the biggest accomplishments of the program?
“Data,” Megan reminds me, “is only as powerful as what you use it for.” And the monitoring program has been instrumental in helping to advance lake health.
For example, LWA has been appointed Lake Management Committee, a role which provides a formal channel for the group to give recommendations on development proposals on the foreshore of Lake Windermere. “The community-based water monitoring program is an essential component of that relationship. In fact, I don’t think we would have that [role] if we weren’t administering the program,” Megan reflects.
Further, LWA has a diverse board of directors, including youth, First Nations representatives, local government staff, and citizens from various sectors. The variety of backgrounds and perspectives helps the water monitoring data resonate in several spheres of influence.
In addition to informing policy and planning decisions, the water quality monitoring program is a powerful tool for public education and engagement. Throughout the years, nearly 100 people have volunteered as citizen scientists--a pretty significant number, in an area with a population of around 5,000.
What’s so special about the water monitoring program as a vehicle for engagement is that people are actively interacting with their living environment and gaining knowledge that can further impact lake health in a myriad of ways. They aren’t being told what to think; they are invited to explore the lake, to transcribe and translate the natural phenomena that are occurring.
“Active participation helps to makes the experience so much more exciting and memorable for our citizen scientists,” Megan tells me.
Because there is such high citizen engagement in LWA, Megan observes that LWA has a pretty positive reputation in the Invermere, and the Columbia Valley. “We’re seen as representing the interests of the community,” she says. “It’s not a special interest group. It’s driven by a long list of people in the community, some of whom don’t always agree!”
Despite the many different perspectives held by residents in the Lake Windermere area, LWA is helping to usher in a growing consensus that a healthy lake makes for a healthy and happy town.
Title Image - Yana Kehrlein
“I Love My Lake” - Katie Watt
All remaining images credited to Megan Peloso
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