From its source in the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire, UK, the River Chess extends for 11 miles to join the River Colne in Hertfordshire. As one of only 250 chalk river systems in the world, the Chess supports a living ecology with invertebrates, water mice and brown trout.
“One of my hobbies is fishing,” explains Paul Jennings, a River Chess local. “Few people spend so much time by a river and notice changes and things as often as fishermen.”
Jennings and others have been monitoring water quality and monitoring invertebrates in the river system for over a decade. Their concern for the health of the river has led them to use water companies and the government to improve water quality and flow.
“This is a chalk flow that should be crystal clear,” says Jennings. “We realized that the water would change dramatically from time to time. We saw these very dramatic changes in the color of the water and also in the smell. “
For the past few years, Jennings and local citizen scientists have been working with a scientist from Queen Mary University in London to collect more extensive data sources from the river.
Kate Heppell, a professor at the Geography School, was introduced to Jennings while her Masters students were doing fieldwork on the river. “I had some sensors from a previous project and we thought they would be great to use in this river system,” explains Heppell.
And so Chesswatch was born. A project in which the community could directly access the data recorded by the sensors. “We could get water quality data that the group could own rather than other people’s data … they could decide where to place the sensors and use the data as they see fit,” says Heppell.
Each of the four sensors collects data on water quality parameters such as pH, turbidity and oxygen concentration every 15 minutes and thus builds up a detailed understanding of the river system. For example, in conductivity measurements that relate to the concentration of ions dissolved in the water, a daily signature indicates the time at which purified wastewater is discharged from a local facility.
While the university team provides the sensors, the citizen scientists still have to bring some of their own equipment.
“You have to have waders,” laughs Jennings. “We probably go out every couple of weeks to check the four sensors. We have telemetry on two of them, then we have two of them that need to be downloaded. So the point is to bring a laptop with you to download the equipment and go into the river to make sure the sensor is working properly and is kept clean. ‘
For Heppell, Chesswatch is a departure from their normal research methodology. Her first foray into the public arena of science gave her a lot to think about. “I consider myself an interdisciplinary scientist, but when we start working in public relations, I think your knowledge needs to expand again,” she says. “Something that may previously have been a scientific endeavor for me, where I understand the processes … suddenly the side of community engagement and how it affects people’s lives becomes really important.”
For Jennings and the Citizen Scientists, the data collected was key to ensuring accountability for the river’s health. “We realized that the only way we could change things was actually based on evidence and through Kate’s involvement,” he explains. “We’ve been able to successfully put a lot of pressure on the water companies and our environmental agency to get things done.”
In addition to collecting data that will influence river management plans and raise public awareness of water quality threats, Chesswatch has built educational resources for schools and teachers in the area. The dissemination of the data from the project was therefore in the foreground for Heppell, a challenge that was significantly supported by a citizen scientist who is responsible for data analysis and dissemination. An interactive dashboard and storymap brought the data to life for the community who helped create the project and beyond.
“It was very important for me to understand the idea that this is a jointly created project from the start,” says Heppell. “If I had started the project differently, would have gone into the system and said: ‘I would like to place the sensors here’, we would have made something completely different out of it.”