Environmental Management

, Volume 61, Issue 1, pp 46–57 | Cite as

Characterizing the Breadth and Depth of Volunteer Water Monitoring Programs in the United States



A survey of 345 volunteer water monitoring programs in the United States was conducted to document their characteristics, and perceived level of support for data to inform natural resource management or policy decisions. The response rate of 86% provided information from 46 states. Programs represented a range of ages, budgets, objectives, scopes, and level of quality assurance, which influenced data uses and perceived support by sponsoring agency administrators and external decision makers. Most programs focused on rivers, streams, and lakes. Programs had not made substantial progress to develop EPA or state-approved quality assurance plans since 1998, with only 48% reporting such plans. Program coordinators reported feeling slightly more support for data to be used for management as compared to policy decisions. Programs with smaller budgets may be at particular risk of being perceived to lack credibility due to failure to develop quality assurance plans. Over half of programs identified as collaborative, in that volunteers assisted scientists in program design, data analysis and/or dissemination of results. Just under a third were contributory, in which volunteers primarily collected data in a scientist-defined program. Recommendations to improve perceived data credibility, and to augment limited budgets include developing quality assurance plans and gaining agency approval, and developing partnerships with other organizations conducting monitoring in the area to share resources and knowledge. Funding agencies should support development of quality assurance plans to help ensure data credibility. Service providers can aid in plan development by providing training to program staff over time to address high staff turnover rates.


Citizen science Public participation in scientific research Volunteer monitoring Watershed management 



The authors wish to acknowledge the input of volunteer monitoring program coordinators from across the United States that informed this research. Thanks also to Kristen Livingstone and Sergei Bluman for assistance in compiling 1998 comparison data.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Ethical Approval

The authors assert that all procedures contributing to this work comply with applicable ethical standards of the relevant national and institutional committees on human experimentation and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2008.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of VermontBurlingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Planning and Landscape ArchitectureUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

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