Engaging Great Lakes Communities in Citizen Science with Beach Water Quality Monitoring

Gabrielle Parent-Doliner
Swim Guide
July 08, 2019
toronto harbour

In 2018, Swim Drink Fish received funding from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to bring low-cost, reliable citizen science water quality monitoring to swimming and recreational water sites on the Great Lakes.

We’ve since launched sampling programs and volunteer engagement activities on three of the Great Lakes, in three different communities: Toronto (Lake Ontario), Niagara (Lake Erie) and Zhiibaahaasing First Nation (Lake Huron).

Swim Drink Fish’s citizen science recreational water monitoring hubs are a four-year demonstration project and part of ECCC’s Great Lakes Protection Initiative. This dedicated funding is part of a larger push from governments to support and advance citizen science and community-based monitoring of freshwater and marine ecosystems in Canada and the United States. Swim Drink Fish is a Toronto-based charity working toward a swimmable, drinkable, fishable future for all Canadians.

Starting in 2018 and continuing until 2022, Swim Drink Fish is working to establish and support recreational water quality monitoring hubs in six communities along the Great Lakes, including three First Nations communities. The citizen science monitoring hubs are equipped with in-house labs to sample for presence of E. coli bacteria as an indicator of bacterial contamination and conduct extensive weekly field surveys on the health of these recreational water sites.

The hubs are set up in locations where there is insufficient recreational monitoring by government agencies, there are contamination concerns, and where communities swim, paddle and connect with their water. Some locations, such as Toronto, are recognized as Areas of Concern. Data collected by the hubs is shared as soon as it becomes available on Swim Guide, as well as on the hubs’ local communications channels, such as social media and newsletters. Swim Drink Fish also shares raw data sets on its open data portal.

“Recreational waters” are natural, untreated water bodies, such as beaches, lakes and rivers, where people swim, fish, paddle or hold traditional ceremonies. Swim Drink Fish focused on recreational waters for this project because these are the areas of greatest need for the greatest number of people, as well as the areas with the greatest potential to inspire change. 

Zhiibaahaasing lake huron
Swim Drink Fish staff taking water temperature in Zhiibaahaasing First Nation on Lake Huron. Credit: Jessica Gordon

Recreational waters are affected by pollution from the land and from wastewater.

The Swim Drink Fish citizen science water monitoring hubs aim to fill some of the significant gaps in recreational water monitoring in the Great Lakes region. Swim Drink Fish’s citizen science water monitoring hubs’ objectives are to invent a scalable, sustainable model for ongoing water quality monitoring that addresses both western science and traditional knowledge needs. The program also aims to hone best practices for communicating water quality results to the community quickly and reliably and identify the communications technology infrastructure required to sustain these activities across the Great Lakes region, including in First Nations communities.

There are currently three citizen science monitoring hubs running in the Great Lakes region. The hubs, led by a coordinator employed by Swim Drink Fish, are engaging communities in citizen science, complete with an on-site lab for processing samples, and a local volunteer engagement and water literacy program.  Hubs provide easy access to open, usable recreational water quality information to their communities.

A Toronto Hub monitors sites on the Toronto shoreline of Lake Ontario. Toronto is the oldest of the hubs, with sampling occurring as far back as 2001. The Toronto hub was established by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an initiative of Swim Drink Fish.

A Zhiibaahaasing First Nation Hub monitors Lake Huron beaches in Zhiibaahaasing First Nation on Manitoulin Island and Cockburn Island. It was established in the fall of 2018 and is hosted by Zhiibaahaasing First Nation.

A Lake Erie - Niagara Hub monitors beaches in the Niagara region on the north shore of Lake Erie. It was established in spring 2019 and is hosted by the Niagara Coastal Community Collaborative

water sample fort erie
Swim Drink Fish staff collecting a water sample in Fort Erie on Lake Erie. Credit: Jessica Gordon

Two new hubs will be established in First Nation communities in 2020 and 2021, in consultation with the Anishinabek Nation. A third hub will be established in 2020 in Kingston, on the St. Lawrence River.

Contact hub coordinators directly to get involved with your local hub as a volunteer or supporter, and to become a steward for swimmable water:

Toronto Hub: https://www.theswimguide.org/affiliates/lake-ontario-waterkeeper/

Zhiibaahaasing Hub: https://www.theswimguide.org/affiliates/zhiibaahaasing-first-nation/

Lake Erie - Niagara Hub: https://www.theswimguide.org/affiliates/niagara-coastal-community-collaborative/

Gabrielle Parent-Doliner
Swim Guide

Gabrielle Parent-Doliner is program manager for Swim Guide, a Swim Drink Fish Canada initiative, based out of Toronto, Ontario.