I am thrilled to share the remarkable journey of the Lake Erie Volunteer Science Network (LEVSN), a movement that's rewriting the narrative of community-driven water stewardship. Our story, which began in 2020 as a collection of separate volunteer water quality monitoring groups from Michigan, New York, and Ohio, has transformed into a regional network that unites and empowers 16 partner organizations. Through collaborative efforts and a commitment to our communities, LEVSN has created a platform that combines local data into a comprehensive picture of the health of watersheds across the vast Great Lake Basin. As the coordinator of this network, Cleveland Water Alliance (CWA) continues to leverage data, technology, and collaboration to safeguard our natural resources and foster growth in our freshwater economy.
Water quality in the Lake Erie Basin is significantly impacted by human activity, more than that of any other Great Lake. These impacts are fueled by a longstanding mix of industrial and agricultural pollution as well as emerging contaminants such as microplastics and PFAS. Unfortunately, the governments and research institutions tasked with managing these issues have limited resources that restrict the scope of water monitoring conducted across the Basin. The results are stark gaps in water quality data, a necessary component of the management, restoration, and advocacy needed to ensure communities’ long-term access to clean water for health, business, and recreation.
Fortunately, volunteer water quality monitoring programs, dubbed “Community,” “Citizen,” or “Volunteer” science groups, have been monitoring water quality across the Basin for years. Dozens of groups regularly collect data from streams and shorelines across the region. Volunteer science has immense potential to improve our approach to water resource management. However, lack of standardized methods as well as limited organizational visibility and credibility have often meant that their data are not considered in decision-making processes. As a result, volunteer science groups have historically struggled to have their voices heard in water resource governance, management, planning, and research conversations.
In 2020 a collaboration of community foundations and CWA launched the Lake Erie Volunteer Science Network (LEVSN) to unite these groups into a regional network. LEVSN works to fill critical information gaps and inspire action for the benefit of the Lake Erie region.
The journey has been filled with significant achievements that highlight the power of community-driven initiatives:
Collaboration Across Communities: In 2020, LEVSN brought together disparate community groups spanning from Ann Arbor to Buffalo to establish a common mission for volunteer monitoring across the region. Today, CWA facilitates seamless communication between participants, promoting the exchange of best practices and support for emerging local groups.
Standardized Data Collection: Our collaborative efforts in 2021 culminated in the development of the Lake Erie Baseline Assessment Framework (LEBAF). This process and living document, a product of partnerships with academic and government experts, established standards for collecting, analyzing, and communicating volunteer-collected water quality data. Equipped with sensors and data management technology, participants ensure trustworthy insights reach local decision-makers and contribute to the broader narrative of Lake Erie watershed health.
Inaugural LEBAF Field Season: In 2022, eight dedicated LEVSN groups piloted LEBAF by gathering standardized data from 14 local waterways, unveiling valuable insights into the health of Lake Erie watersheds. 2023 witnessed an expansion, as five additional groups introduced standardized monitoring, adding new waterways in Akron and Toledo to our network.
Program Evolution: Our journey continues as we build on the successes of previous years. In 2022 alone, LEVSN participants engaged 1052 volunteers for a total of 3534 service hours, investing over $270,000 in volunteer monitoring programs. These numbers are only poised to grow, as our shared commitment strengthens and expands.
The Lake Erie Baseline Assessment Framework (LEBAF) is a process for standardizing data collection, management, and analysis that unlocks the potential of volunteer science to address gaps in water resource monitoring and tell a regional story about the condition of Lake Erie watersheds. LEBAF was given structure and life by LEVSN’s Standards Working Group, a task force composed of volunteer groups as well as experts from research institutions, state agencies, and local government. This Working Group, together with the Water Data Collaborative, led a standards development process that engaged other LEVSN members and over 30 external partner organizations in setting shared priorities and methods that empower local groups to conduct reliable and comparable data across the region. This process resulted in the official launch of LEBAF at the inaugural Lake Erie Citizen Science Summit, co-hosted by the Cooperative Institute of Great Lakes Research and CWA, at the International Association of Great Lakes Researchers’ State of Lake Erie conference in March of 2022.
The primary output of this process was a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP or “Standards”) which describe program requirements and best practices for the collection, analysis, and reporting of volunteer science data. These standards are defined by shared:
Emerging from the 2022 Summit, LEVSN groups volunteered to participate in the first regionally standardized Lake Erie Baseline Assessment Framework (LEBAF) sampling season. In addition to the SOP, participants received access to sampling equipment (YSI Multiparameter Water Meters), data management and analysis tools (The Commons Water Reporter tool), and technical training. Participation was further supported by monthly cadence calls and workshops on data analysis and program evaluation facilitated by CWA.
As a result of this standardized assessment, LEVSN is able to present a regional volunteer-driven perspective on the condition of watersheds that feed Lake Erie and provide a benchmark against which future monitoring can be compared. These results are presented alongside the underlying data and analyses in the 2022 LEBAF Field Season Report. Overall, Lake Erie and its watersheds appear to be generally healthy and support aquatic life, though some areas were identified that may be experiencing unhealthy conditions. These conclusions are particularly supported by participants’ direct measurement of pH and dissolved oxygen as well as expressions of conductivity as TDS, salinity and chloride.
The most significant exception to the general healthy status of monitored Lake Erie watersheds is that every monitored water body experienced at least one exceedance of the conductivity macroinvertebrate biocondition gradient. This parameter is an indicator that looks at stream health through the lens of potential impacts to aquatic life from dissolved substances, chemicals, and minerals present in the water. Results of this parameter were persistently high across space and time and are supported by existing macroinvertebrate data where it is available. This could mean that elevated conductivity levels are impacting aquatic life in many Lake Erie streams. Seasonal plotting of conductivity data collected in future years will help determine the scope of this potential impact with greater confidence as well as establish trends over time.
A significant outcome of the 2022 field season was the identification of LEBAF’s limitations. It is essential to note that this first iteration of LEBAF has many data gaps ranging from underrepresentation of cold water streams to lack of Canadian participants. Additionally, a single season snapshot cannot make any definitive statements on the overall health of any watershed regardless of how much data was collected. Before drawing any actionable conclusions, it is critical to consider long term variations that provide better context for each season’s observations. As a result, all observations and interpretation described in this resource should be taken as heavily qualified by a range of limitations described in LEBAF’s Field Season Report, particularly in its first year of operation.
With few stations located on Lake Erie itself, it also is important to recognize that assessment of aquatic life conditions on the open water, as opposed to the streams and rivers of Lake Erie’s Watersheds, is not currently possible through LEBAF. It is plausible to suggest that monitored watersheds which appear healthy may have a positive influence on Lake conditions and waters with at risk or unhealthy conditions may negatively influence Lake Erie. However, other factors not included in this assessment should be considered before making any conclusive statements.
Overall, this first year of standardized volunteer monitoring marked great progress towards LEBAF’s intended monitoring purpose, data use, and desired impacts. LEVSN was able to equip itself with high quality sampling technology, data management tools, and SOPs to enable credible, standardized volunteer monitoring. As a result, participating groups were able to collaboratively screen for and benchmark the health of their local watersheds, identifying data gaps to guide future monitoring priorities and potential problem areas for further investigation. As of Spring 2023, a full evaluation of LEBAF’s processes has been conducted by participants and improvements are in progress to fill gaps and refine program elements. Moving forward LEVSN aims to build on 2022’s successes to expand the number of sampled parameters, historical data record, geographic coverage, and confidence in its interpretation over future sampling years.
As LEBAF monitoring continues, the data collected will begin to provide a regional condition assessment of Lake Erie streams over time that can inform local and regional restoration and protection activities. However, even with the program still in its infancy, the network has already demonstrated the capacity of a regional volunteer network to generate useful science and community impact. LEBAF has helped each participating program enhance or expand their efforts and now it is enabling four new groups to begin volunteer monitoring for the first time in 2023. The movement will continue to build momentum in pursuit of better water quality and quality of life for all Lake Erie Basin communities.
Volunteer science helps communities identify local issues, inform management decisions, and raise funds for environmental restoration. For example, Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC), a LEVSN participant, has produced data that informed the development of local and state policies restricting the use of phosphorus fertilizer on residential lawns. Since the adoption of these policies, phosphorus levels in the Huron River dropped an average of 28%. Over their program’s 20 year run, volunteer data has helped HRWC and its partners raise over $10 million for water quality projects. Volunteer monitoring also helps build relationships and a culture of conservation. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper (BNW), another LEVSN partner, has leveraged their volunteer data into conversations with land owners that often result in long-standing relationships with community members who have the largest immediate impact on their stretch of the waterways. These individuals, in turn, become an extension of the community’s eyes on the water - keeping BNW up to date on any issues they identify on the waterways.
Bre Hohman, Assistant Director at Erie Soil and Water Conservation District, attests, "Being part of LEVSN has helped improve our monitoring program as well as provided a platform for us to share our experiences with younger programs. The LESVN partnership has provided us a platform for using our data beyond our own watersheds, resources for expanding our monitoring program, and networking of a wide knowledge base that has improved our understanding of the water quality of our watersheds. The work of LEVSN has strengthened several volunteer monitoring programs in our region and is creating a streamlined, turn-key process to motivate new participation as we strive to tell the story of water quality in the Lake Erie watershed”.
At Cleveland Water Alliance, the Volunteer Science Network is a cornerstone of our commitment to driving the use of data in Lake Erie management through the Smart Lake Erie Watershed Initiative and beyond. Over the past few years, we've deployed hundreds of sensors and thousands of miles of telecommunications backbone to establish Lake Erie as the largest digitally connected freshwater body in the world. Yet, there will always be gaps in that data. The fact that people care about our water resources deeply enough to volunteer their time to fill these gaps is a truly invaluable asset. Ultimately, communities have to be part of the solution if we are going to steward our natural resources and grow our water economy. By establishing the LEVSN and the LEBAF Standards, we empower the community to engage with their own surroundings and manage their resources more effectively.
Even with the program still in its infancy, the network has already demonstrated the capacity of a regional volunteer network to generate real scientific and community impact. LEBAF has helped each participating program enhance or expand their efforts and now it is enabling new groups to begin volunteer monitoring for the first time. The movement will continue to build momentum in pursuit of better water quality and quality of life for all Lake Erie Basin communities.
LEVSN invites communities, organizations, and individuals to join the movement to understand and protect the invaluable resources of Lake Erie watersheds by:
If you are interested in supporting or partnering with LEVSN, please reach out to Max Herzog with Cleveland Water Alliance at firstname.lastname@example.org. Together, we'll ensure a healthier future for Lake Erie Basin communities. With your help, the story has just begun.
LEVSN is a truly collaborative effort that is powered by a broad range of partners including:
2022 LEBAF Data Contributors
Other LEVSN Members
Contributors to the Great Lakes One Water (GLOW) Initiative that provided the initial funding to get the network started:
August 17, 2023