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Caring for the river: South Yuba River Citizens League River Monitors measure water quality

Submitted to The Union

For the last 21 years, the South Yuba River Citizens League has coordinated a revolving group of dedicated, environmentally conscious, river-loving volunteers in monitoring the water quality of the Yuba watershed. Almost every month, these River Monitors, ranging in age from high school students to senior citizens, visit 35 sites along the watershed to measure water quality parameters such as water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, and conductivity, while also monitoring for the presence of sensitive and invasive species, and occasionally testing for bacteria, nutrients, and toxic metals. All 21 years of this volunteer collected data is available online at RiverDB.org for anyone who is interested in viewing it.

Kyle McNeil, South Yuba River Citizens League’s Ecohydrologist and lead River Monitor, has been analyzing the data gathered by these citizen scientists for a number of years. “Our monitoring data is important because it allows SYRCL, as well as county or state agencies, to quickly identify concerns that may affect the health, recreation options, and safety of our community. The Yuba River is a special, meaningful place to so many people. And when you care about something, you make sure to know as much as you can about it and check in often to make sure it is cared for.”

As a citizen-based local environmental nonprofit, South Yuba River Citizens League does not have the deep pockets of a government agency or corporate entity, so it relies on volunteer citizen scientists like the River Monitors for a portion of its data gathering to further its mission to protect and preserve the Yuba watershed.

“Many of our monitors have been with us for over 20 years, since the program’s inception,” says Eloise Bellingham, South Yuba River Citizens League’s River Monitoring Coordinator. “It is amazing to see the passion and commitment they have to the watershed. Each month, volunteers travel from all over the state to help us collect data on all three rivers of the Yuba and its tributaries. The dedication of our volunteers really reflects how a citizen science program can unite a community and work towards making sure the Yuba is appreciated and protected for decades and generations of River Monitors to come.”

South Yuba River Citizens League recently surveyed their River Monitor volunteers. Of those that responded, the overwhelming majority of them expressed great satisfaction with the work they are doing.

“People should know that our river monitoring program is one of the most respected programs of its kind in the nation,” says Diane Cross, who has been a South Yuba River Citizens League River Monitor since the program’s inception, initially monitoring on the North Yuba (at Downieville), then at Purdon Crossing, and now west of Edwards Crossing. “In my role as River Monitor Trainer, I often met people who were in awe of SYRCL’s program and wanted very much to copy it in every detail. My favorite part about monitoring is always being out in the canyons, along the river, observing the wildlife, the water hydraulics, and the riparian corridor as the plants change with the seasons. The work is important as both a scientific information-gathering exercise, but also to help raise awareness of a precious and rare place in California — which can easily be harmed by thoughtless and/or ignorant (human) behavior.”

Mary Choate joined the River Monitoring crew in 2021. “The Yuba is such a vital part of our community,” she says. “Volunteering as a River Monitor is an interesting way to learn more about the river ecosystem while also helping to keep the river a safe and healthy place. I love that I get to watch the same sites every month to see how they change with the seasons. Every time I volunteer, there are new plants, bugs, and birds to watch while I collect data. The river may keep its same course, but the view is always unique!”

The data the River Monitors have collected over the years has shown that, while the water in the river is showing a trend towards warming due, in part, to climate change and the drought is noticeable in terms of volume, the river is otherwise stable.

Using citizen scientists like the River Monitors is becoming increasingly common in the scientific community. As issues around science become increasingly contentious – just take a look at the discourse around climate change or COVID, for example – engaging everyday people in data collection is important to reestablish the connection between science and people’s lives. For years, people believed that if you change somebody’s mind, you will change their habits. In truth, it turns out that if you change someone’s actions, they will eventually change their mind. Direct, hands-on engagement with local issues helps people better understand the “science” behind whatever issues are present and the solutions or recommendations being proposed to mitigate them.

As well, since a love of place is one of the main reasons that people volunteer for things like River Monitoring, having that direct connection to the subtle changes in the river through time ensures that individuals become powerful stewards of the watershed.

South Yuba River Citizens League is so proud of the accomplishments of the River Monitor program that they gave a presentation on its efficacy and successes at the Waterkeeper Alliance Global Conference in Washington D.C. As well, South Yuba River Citizens League is always looking to sign up more volunteers for all of its Watershed projects. These projects include things like stormwater sampling, operation of temperature data loggers, and bioassessment involving macroinvertebrates and algae. To find out more about South Yuba River Citizens League and its commitment to protecting and preserving the Yuba Watershed, go to yubariver.org.

Source: South Yuba River Citizens League

South Yuba River Citizens League Ecohydrologist, Kyle McNeil, storm sampling for bacteria at the 49 bridge.
Provided photo

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