Watershed Action Towards Environmental Responsibility

Watershed Action Towards Environmental Responsibility

By George Sorger, McMaster University

WATER (Watershed Action Towards Environmental Responsibility) is a project involving McMaster University faculty and high schools; it trains senior high school students in Hamilton Ontario and neighbouring towns to monitor waterways for contamination with total coliforms, E. coli, phosphate and ammonium ions, dissolved oxygen, hardness and toxicity, using Daphnia, over a period of 5 weeks. The students are then approached by a concerned citizen’s group (e.g. The Hamilton or Dundas Conserver Society, The Ancaster Golf Club, the Friends of Red Hill Valley, Friends of the Forty, Citizens Action Parkdale East, Spencer Creek Watch, Concerned Citizens of Ward 5) and asked to examine a suspected problem site. The students do this for 3 weeks, looking for a pattern that would confirm or allay the citizens group suspicion. For example, if a pipe is a source of a pollutant, the concentration of the pollutant should be lowest upstream of the pipe, and highest at the pipe. The downstream measure should lie between the upstream level and the level at pipe, depending on the relative volume and flow of the pipe contribution and the body of water it flows into. The students then report their findings to the citizen’s group for action to be taken as the group sees fit.

The data found by the students in WATER’s programme has been used by the Friends of the Red Hill Valley to persuade the City of Hamilton to remediate a broken sewer pipe that was spewing nearly raw sewage into Red Hill Creek. The student data, from the same programme, on the leakage of toxic effluent from the Ottawa Street Landfill site has been a major factor in the City’s remediation programme of that problem. Reporting by the above students on toxic leachate from the Brampton Street Landfill prompted the City to repair an underground leachate collection pipe at that location. WATER’s student data has been used in the Environmental Assessment of the potential impact of the construction of the proposed North-South leg of the Red Hill Expressway ordered by the Regional Government of Hamilton Wentworth (Wenghofer et al., 1997). WATER’s programme is a part of the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Programme (Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan 1995).

Methodology has been developed by WATER to satisfy several criteria. The data gathered by the high school monitors must be scientifically valid to be useful in the context that it is intended by WATER. The methods must be accessible both intellectually and economically to the average school in a developed Country and they must be interpretable and useful to the public at large.

Why Is WATER Needed?

The Need for Public Participation in the Conservation and Management of the Environment

Public participation is an increasingly important part of environmental management. The United Nations Environment Programme stresses public participation as an essential component of sustainability (UNEP, 1995). At the national level, Canada’s Green Plan (1990) stresses partnerships with Environmental Citizenship as essential ingredients (Environment Canada, 1990); at the regional level, the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan includes citizen’s groups (including Watershed Action Towards Environmental Responsibility – WATER, see below) as monitors of environmental pollution (H. Murphy, 1995).

It has been shown that public consultation by the authorities results in better environmental planning, and that such consultation results in public support for agreed upon government action. For example, volunteers monitor Rhode Island’s Salt Ponds, which are an important economic resource. The information provided by this volunteer monitoring is used by government agencies (Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council) in its decision making and by scientists (University of Rhode Island salt ponds research project) in deciding on future research.Public participation in actual measurement and monitoring of the environment is also increasing. Many government agencies have volunteer programs for water quality monitoring (e.g. Water Watch, Australia; New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Volunteer Monitoring, United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water; Project del Rio, United States and Mexico) that act as a mechanism of public education and engagement and also allow cost-savings by the government (referred to in United Nations Environmental Programme, 1995).

Reasons for Increased Public Participation in Environmental Monitoring

The increase in volunteer and community environmental monitoring of waterways is in part the consequence of a reduction in funding for the environment by governments. This trend is part of a general world wide tendency to “downsize” government. While funding is declining, pollution due to increased urbanization, economic activity and industrialization is on the rise. The United Nations Development Programme report for 1995 shows that conservation is taking a back seat to the use of natural resources and production, at the expense of the environment: The UNDP report shows that water consumption world wide is rising rapidly, as is the main polluter of water – industrial agriculture.

Increasing public mistrust of government’s care of the environment also motivate community participation in monitoring. Faietta et al (1996) state that “The basis of government liability in negligence in the environmental context has expanded in the last decade. Governmental authorities and their agents are increasingly attracting liability for how they enforce environmental legislation, perform inspections pursuant to statutory authority, issue government permits and approvals, and inform the public of environmental concerns.” Baxter (1990) found that “since 1983 there has been a steady annual increase in the percentage of people who feel that the country (the US) is not spending enough … on the environment” and that since 1984 this number has become the majority and is increasing.

Another motivation for community environmental monitoring arises from a mistrust of scientists and “experts” themselves. Scientists often report their findings in ways that are incomprehensible to the public, so that the public’s concerns and questions are not answered (Ward, 1996). Levine (1983) examined the attitudinal changes of local residents during the revelations about the effects of toxic wastes in the Love Canal. He found that the residents were distrustful of the Environmental Authorities because they had not warned them about the severity of the problem and they became distrustful of the scientists who were unable to answer their questions in a meaningful, clear way. The authorities were seen as not being objective and the scientists as not understanding the problem in its meaningful totality.

To be an important component of environmental management, community and volunteer monitoring must provide an accurate assessment of the environment. Moreover, authorities must be able to accept community monitoring as credible. It may be (and in our experience has been) argued by the authorities that non- professionals do not have the ability or the necessary equipment to carry out measurements precisely and reproducibly.

What WATER Hopes to Achieve

Public empowerment. Citizens and complaints about environmental problems are rarely given the seriousness they require by the authorities, who often claim the public is uninformed or misinformed. Conversely citizens often lack the confidence to confront authorities on environmental problems because of a lack of scientific information. At a time of government cutbacks and changed priorities, in which the concern about environmental degradation has decreased in government circles, the above two sided coin is very pernicious for both the environment and human health related to it. Our project attempts to counter this reality by providing citizens groups with the accurate scientific information they need to be listened to by the authorities.

The public needs to be able to document its concerns with valid scientific data, (1) to check on the environmental authorities’ activities, (2) to extend the latter’s under-funded research (i.e. monitoring where the authorities can’t afford it), (3) to bring environmental problems to the attention of the authorities and insist on remediation and thus prevent crises arising from neglect or not addressing a problem in time. So our goals are …

1.   To empower communities to take ownership of their local watershed by providing them with the mechanism and means to monitor its contamination and to analyze the results they obtain. This involves a partnership between high schools and the communities they are in.

2.      To educate high school youth, who are our future community leaders, about the importance of the environment, by teaching them social concepts and scientific methods that are socially and environmentally relevant.


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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.