The Power of Community-Collected Data: how CSI's data have been used to effect positive change
Community Science Institute has been a pillar in the Finger Lakes region for over two decades. In that time, we have collected over 80,000 water quality data points with the help of our extensive community volunteer network.
While short-term data provide a good snapshot of the water quality in a watershed or stream, the long-term data produced by CSI and our volunteers can help to reveal broader patterns, such as impacts of climate change, frequency cyanobacteria blooms, or changes in ecological communities. We need concrete evidence of these patterns to effectively push for legal and institutional changes to watershed management. Further, these trends in water quality data can help us identify and communicate where additional effort is needed for environmental stewardship.
Because our lab is state-certified (NYSDOH-ELAP ID#11790, USEPA ID#01518), our water quality data is regulatory-quality. This means that our data can be used to hold institutions, policy-makers, and corporations accountable for the environments in which they operate. Our data can also be used to demonstrate effective watershed management by showing concrete indications of good water quality!
Finally, our volunteers are deeply rooted in the natural spaces that surround them—both a cause and an effect of the watershed monitoring they do. By making our data publicly accessible on our database, we invite the whole community to participate in environmental stewardship.
Armed with long-term, regulatory-quality data in the hands of an informed and driven community, we work toward a more sustainable Finger Lakes region. Here are some highlights of ways our community-collected data has helped effect change in and around Central New York:
2010-2014: Community Science Institute uses data to oppose fracking
In 2009, Community Science Institute began mobilizing homeowners to take baseline measurements of their wells. Using the tools of community engagement, water quality science, and our public database, we aggregated groundwater data from 14 counties and over 200 wells to prepare for the possibility of hydraulic fracking in New York’s Marcellus and Utica Shale regions. We supplemented this with our Red Flag Monitoring program, focusing on surface water, beginning in 2010. We knew that having baseline data on water parameters related to fracking before it began would be critical to demonstrating its harm. Luckily, in 2014, the state of New York banned fracking and our groundwater database did not have to be used for its intended purpose. Visit our Press page to see the story of CSI’s involvement against fracking told through news stories.
2011: CSI data help to identify sources (or non-sources) of phosphorus into Cayuga Lake's Southern End
Community Science Institute volunteers have been collecting data on nutrient concentrations in Cayuga Lake near Cornell University’s Lake Source Cooling outfall since 2007. Comparing levels found here to those from other synoptic sampling locations, we found that the majority of phosphorus entering this end of Cayuga Lake came from nonpoint sources, rather than the Lake Source Cooling project. This added important context to discussions about how best to address phosphorus loading into the southern end of Cayuga Lake
2014: Cayuga Lake's Southern End removed from EPA 303(d) list of impaired water bodies, based on CSI data
In 2014, Community Science Institute data was submitted as evidence against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)’s listing of Cayuga Lake’s South End as impaired for pathogenic bacteria. The case was supported by multiple parties, including the Tompkins County Water Resources Council, the Village of Cayuga Heights, and Cornell University. Because of the community collaboration supported by CSI’s regulatory-quality data, the DEC and the EPA reviewed the data and agreed that bacteria standards in the lake were not exceeded. The result: Cayuga Lake’s Southern End was removed from the 303(d) list of impaired water bodies!
2014: CSI data used to validate the Cayuga Lake Modeling Project's model of Fall Creek phosphorus loading
Community Science Institute is a proud associate of the Cayuga Lake Monitoring Partnership, which formed in 2008 to track the water quality in Cayuga Lake’s Southern End. This partnership turned its attention to the Cayuga Lake Modeling Project around 2013 to develop a Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) watershed model, used to predict the movement of water, nutrients, and solids through the watershed. CSI’s data on historical phosphorus loading in Fall Creek were used to validate the model during its development, and Cayuga Lake’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) is heavily dependent on this SWAT model.
2016: CSI data used as evidence of permit violations for fecal coliform bacteria by the Trumansburg Wastewater Plant
Starting in 2008 and spanning through 2013, data collected by Community Science Institute volunteers demonstrated that water pouring into Trumansburg Creek from the Trumansburg Wastewater Treatment Plant contained over 300 times the allowable level of fecal coliform bacteria. This prompted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to require an upgrade to the plant for the sake of minimizing impacts to Trumansburg Creek. Since the plant upgrade was completed, E. coli levels on Trumansburg Creek have not exceeded the NYSDOH’s contact recreation limit of 235 colonies/100mL.
2019: Peer-reviewed article published on long-term concentrations of phosphorus in Cayuga Lake tributaries
Water, an open-access journal on water science, published O’Leary et al. 2019, in which CSI data were used to compare long-term changes in phosphorus between Fall Creek and northeastern tributaries of Cayuga Lake. The findings demonstrated much higher phosphorus concentrations in northeastern tributaries, near where problematic harmful algal blooms (HABs) have been documented, than in Fall Creek. This important finding moves us closer to understanding how to manage our water resources for the prevention of HABs.
2021: Draft Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) challenged by CSI data that conflicted with TMDL findings
Community Science Institute, as well as other stakeholders around Cayuga Lake, submitted comments regarding the DEC’s long-awaited Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for phosphorus on the Southern End of Cayuga Lake. In the TMDL, the DEC extrapolates phosphorus loading estimations for Fall Creek to the entire Cayuga Lake watershed. However, CSI data highlighted in O’Leary et al. 2019 demonstrated that the DEC’s estimation of bioavailable phosphorus loaded into the northern end of Cayuga Lake is likely far below the actual loaded amount. Notably, dissolved phosphorus concentrations of northeastern tributaries are on average seven times higher than those in Fall Creek. Similarly, the TMDL estimate for total phosphorus is far higher than the total phosphorus estimate reached by three independent sources, including CSI data. Best management practices (BMPs) are unlikely to prove effective if based on flawed data.
In 2018, stakeholders in and around Seneca and Keuka Lakes joined together to reduce nutrient loading into both lakes. To do this, they chose to develop a 9 Element (9E) plan, a clean water plan that emphasizes community involvement on a local scale. Over the next few years, a computer model of excess nutrient transport within the watershed was developed based on data collected by Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association (SLPWA) and Keuka Lake Association (KLA) volunteers and analyzed in CSI’s state-certified laboratory. The Seneca-Keuka 9E Plan is now nearing its completion. Its speedy completion is due in large part to the successful collaboration between CSI, SLPWA, and KLA. Water quality data for both Seneca Lake and Keuka Lake tributaries can be found on our database.
We love collaborating with this community to monitor our environment. Our database is freely accessible to anyone—pay it a visit if there are any water quality patterns you are curious about. If you’d like to contribute to our long-term dataset, please reach out! We are always looking for more volunteers. You can get more information about volunteering (or about any questions you may have) by emailing our Outreach and Programs Coordinator, Grace Haynes, at firstname.lastname@example.org.