All Water Is Connected: Citizen Scientists Monitor Virginia Water Quality

Image alt-text: sunlight reflects off the ocean as it meets the shore
Title: Virginia Beach
Photo Source: Creative Commons, Nicolas Henderson on Twitter

Virginia Beach Blue Water Task Force works all twelve months of the year.

When we visit the beach, water quality is the last thing most of us want to worry about. Virginia Beach receives more than 15 million tourists each year, and both the state Department of Health and a local branch of the Surfrider Foundation are checking water quality to make sure visiting beachgoers and locals alike are safe. Surfrider is a nonprofit that works to protect oceans and beaches, and its Blue Water Task Forces (BWTF) conduct local water testing to augment government data collection. Citizen scientists with BWTF groups also raise public awareness of pollution incidents and team up with local stakeholders to implement solutions. Hurricane season, when runoff levels are high, can make these volunteer, citizen science-driven community services all the more vital.

What Does the VA Beach BWTF Do?

Surfrider BWTF branches like the one in VA Beach run basic water chemistry and test for bacteria called Enterococcus, which are always in the ocean water but can, in high levels, make people sick. According to Surfrider’s Clean Water Coordinator Colleen Henn, this is particularly important in “highly trafficked areas where beach use is high,” like VA Beach.. She also said that agency-run water testing programs have limited resources, making the BWTF’s work an important source of additional information.

The VA Beach BWTF and other local branches play a crucial role in providing tests that augment those the government performs. For example, in VA Beach, agency tests occur during tourist season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. However, because locals enjoy and use the beaches year-round, the BWTF informs them about water quality even in the months where the government doesn’t test. 

“We decided we wanted to monitor for the
entire year, so we started testing every two weeks,” said Shannon Reinheimer,
VA Beach BWTF program coordinator. She’s also a marine biologist and
environmental scientist, and she played a major role in reactivating the VA
beach BWTF chapter between 2012 and 2014, which had fallen dormant.

“All water is connected, and water quality is
vital to the health of its inhabitants. I enjoy educating people about the
ocean environment and water quality concerns,” Reinheimer said.

The VA Beach BWTF currently measures bacteria
levels at four beaches: Croatan, Sandbridge, 42nd Street, and 1st Street. It
uses water quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Reinheimer says the levels can sometimes get high enough to warrant swim
advisories and that beach shutdowns occur a few times a year. Unfortunately,
storms can cause increased runoff into the ocean, typically making hurricanes
and other storms bad news for local water quality. In fact, stormwater
runoff is the top cause of beach closures and advisories in the U.S.

Reinheimer said that fertilizer and animal
waste are common pollutants that people can try to control and cut back on to
protect their local waters. Intentional gardening practices with native plant
species can also help, and that’s where Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Gardens, or
OFG, program comes in – a bit more on that below.

The VA Beach BWTF posts water quality updates
and warnings on their Facebook
and website.
In popular locations like this, Henn said it “is even more vital to get water
quality information into the hands of ocean users and local decision-makers
alike to know where pollution problems exist and to advocate for

In Other Surfrider News...

Those looking for a deeper dive into BWTF work
can check out Surfrider’s 2017 Clean Water Annual Report,
released in the spring of 2018, which tracks the progress of BWTF and OFG
programs during 2017. Through OFG, volunteers use gardening and landscaping
practices with native plants to reduce pollution and runoff, as well as save
water and wildlife habitat.

BWTF testing was up 18 percent in 2017, with
446 distinct sampling sites, and Surfrider has already brought five new labs
onboard this year. Also in 2017, 23 Surfrider chapters ran OFG programs and
installed 52 new ocean-friendly gardens.

“At a time when it can be difficult to depend
on the federal agencies tasked with protecting our clean water and healthy
coasts, it is encouraging to see how much a dedicated network of volunteers can
accomplish in just one year!” Henn wrote in a related SciStarter blog post she co-authored with
Surfrider Foundation’s Water quality manager Mara Dias.

A bit further up the East Coast, Henn is also
Surfrider’s Eastern Long Island Chapter Coordinator. This chapter, along with
the Concerned Citizens of Montauk and Peconic Baykeeper, released an annual
water quality report in 2018 as well. Again, periods
after rain events, along with closed systems with minimal to no flushing, and
summer periods with warmer water were identified as trends for increased

“To someone who studies biology or is familiar with the effects of stormwater runoff, these results may not be surprising, as the trends found in Eastern Long Island can be relative to any local waterbody,” Henn explained.

To learn more about Surfrider’s work monitoring and enhancing local water quality or to explore how you can become one of their citizen-scientists on the beach, visit the website or SciStarter page for the VA Beach BWTF chapter or the Surfrider Foundation page.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

Categories: Citizen Science, Ecology & Environment, Environment, Nature & Outdoors, Ocean & Water, Project Profile

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About the Author

Julia Travers

Julia Travers

Julia Travers writes about science, tech, art and creative responses to adversity. Her work can be found with NPR, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. Find her on Twitter @traversjul.