Joni Darke looks out over the lake as she describes a photo of her grandparents, taken in almost the exact same spot she’s standing, more than 115 years ago.
“This picture, from about 1905, is of my grandmother Darke riding horseback along the shoreline on the other side of the point. She’s in a long skirt riding side saddle. The men are all in long pants, white shirts, rolled at the sleeves, and even hats…” reminisces Darke from her sister’s lakefront property at B-Say-Tah, a resort village on Saskatchewan’s Echo Lake.
Both the lake and the village have been a part of her family since the early 1900s, and part of her life for the better part of sixty years. Darke admits that she’s never once, in more than six decades, missed a summer out at B-Say-Tah. Now her kids and grandkids are keeping up that family tradition – which is why the quality of the water – and its decline over the years – has her concerned.
“The water quality has become worse and worse every year,” says Darke. “My grandchildren are swimming in this lake and I want it to ensure it’s safe for them. And I’ve always wondered about everything that’s in this lake.”
These questions and concerns are what led her to join forces with the University of Regina’s Community Based Water Monitoring program.
Partnering with Water Rangers, the University of Regina has been recruiting citizen scientists from across the province to test the water in more than 35 provincial lakes. Water Rangers is a not-for-profit organization based in Ottawa that develops water quality test kits that all of the volunteers use.
“The water test kits contains everything our volunteers need to test for a whole host of different attributes that will help us to determine the water quality of these various Saskatchewan lakes,” says Erin Ennis, a biology student, and the summer student coordinator in biologist Dr. Kerri Finlay’s lab. Finlay is in charge of the water monitoring project.
Ennis says the Water Rangers’ test kits contain equipment that tests for water hardness, alkalinity, chlorine, salinity, pH, oxygen levels, and clarity - along with an air thermometer, field guides and notepads to record data, water collection cups, stickers, postcards, and other useful items.
“We have 43 volunteer participants testing 39 lakes, reservoirs, and rivers from May to September this year,” says Ennis, who adds that some of the lakes being tested include Buffalo Pound, various Qu’Appelle River lakes, Pike Lake, Emma Lake, Christopher Lake, and Cree Lake.
She says the citizen scientists then log the data onto their phones through an open access platform, though volunteers can also use log books to keep track of the data if they prefer.
“Saskatchewan lakes, rivers, and natural water bodies face a range of water quality issues, including algal blooms, browning, temperature changes, high turbidity, and invasive species. All of these factors can degrade water quality, which can result in both environmental and economic consequences,” says Ennis.
And having good data allows for the development of good water policy.
“The database where volunteer results are uploaded, which was developed and is run by Water Rangers, tracks changes in the water so we can closely observe what’s happening over time,” says Ennis. “On top of that, we also ask our volunteers to test on the last Sunday of every month for consistency sake.”
But Darke tests far more frequently.
“I test weekly because I want to see the changes,” says Darke. “I’ve also been given free reign over where I test, so I’ve chosen five areas: near my cottage, at my sister’s cottage – which is on the other side of the point from where I am, at either end of the lake, so at the Fort campground and at Echo Valley Provincial Park, and one spot in the middle of the lake. I’m trying to get a full view of what’s going on out there,” she says.
Darke says it’s been amazing how curious people are about what she’s doing.
“They come up to me and ask what I’m doing, if the water is safe, and if they can be swimming. And I have to answer that I don’t know, but that I’m gathering some of the information so they will know.”
The process has been extremely interesting to Darke.
“My tests are pretty basic. I’m a newbie this year. But I now have a comfort level with what I’m doing, and I would absolutely be a part of the program again. And I’d like next time to do more in-depth testing.”
And she’ll have her chance.
“We are going to continue monitoring lakes with citizen scientists. We even have a wish list of 70 lakes total we would like to have volunteers sampling in upcoming years,” says Ennis.
For more information about the University of Regina’s community-based water monitoring program, please visit the Water Rangers website.
This program is generously supported by the University of Regina’s Faculty of Science and the Natural Science and Research Council of Canada (NSERC), with funds from Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Global Water Futures.