Citizen science project maps island water story

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A lack of rainfall on Salt Spring Island this year underlines the value of a data-collection and sharing project initiated almost three years ago.

How much water is available to maintain ecosystem services and to support the community? How well off is the island in terms of maintaining a water balance?  

Those are just two questions that geologist John Millson, who has years of experience in water resource management, hopes the FreshWater Catalogue Project he leads will answer. 

Operating under the auspices of the Salt Spring Island Water Preservation Society (SSIWPS), the project sees volunteers collect on-the-ground data about stream levels, flow rates and water chemistry, all of which helps shine a light on what happens to the metre of rain that falls on the island each year.

“We’ve done some science about how much water stays on the island,” Millson explained. “It’s between three and 20 per cent of the water that lands. So if you took the low number there, it’s three centimetres. Three centimetres is quite a lot, but it’s not huge either.”

Data collected by the FreshWater Catalogue project helps determine how much of that rainfall ends up in the ground, the lakes or flows out to the sea. 

He said there is a perception that “because it rains so much in the winter we are fine; but that’s not quite where it is, I think.” 

Between 45 and 50 volunteers have participated in data gathering since the project began. Most have taken on areas near their homes, but others are willing to monitor streams and watersheds wherever they are needed. 

“Volunteers are collecting citizen science and we are doing the rigour part of that because citizen science is often criticized for a lack of rigour,” he said.

They have regular data from 20 different watersheds, more than 4,000 data points, and seven detailed projects for smaller locales where an individual or a group of individuals has gone above and beyond in their work. 

Data becomes part of an interactive online map on the SSIWPS website. 

“All those areas are collecting flow data, something that is directly relevant to a water balance story for the island,” said Millson.

Because of their work, the project now has insights into what part of monitored creeks consist of surface water — probably rainfall — and what part is groundwater, from historic rainfall, for example. 

SFU professor Diana Allen, a groundwater expert who has studied Gulf Islands hydrogeology, has been grateful for shared data and gave accolades to the project.  

As well, project data will be used in the Weston Lake Water Availability and Climate Change Assessment Study being undertaken by the Islands Trust and Capital Regional District.

Millson notes that many Salt Spring watersheds and creeks are not named, and he hopes the project can help change that. 

He is a big fan of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, which addresses the notion of “animacy.” 

“[The idea is that] if you give something a personality you will feel more attached to it.”

Educating the community about water balance issues is another aim of the FreshWater Catalogue Project. 

Thanks to a generous donation, a short video has been made and will be released this month, just in time for a new school year. Youth were involved in the making of the video, too. 

“They listen, they take it in, they take it home,” Millson said. 

He said program volunteers also “become ambassadors and support that education process . . . so that is really encouraging.” 

Millson is grateful for “amazing” volunteer contributions, donations of both equipment and dollars, especially from the Salt Spring Island Foundation, and community support in general.

“[The project] is addressing an education aspect, it’s addressing a science aspect, it’s addressing a planning aspect,” he said. 

He would like to see more educational video resources created, ideally in a module format that students could interact with. 

Anyone who would like more information about the project, to volunteer to collect data, or has ideas for funding a larger educational video project for school students can contact Millson at jamssiwater@gmail.com

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