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Science and Innovations

Citizen Scientists Monitor Springs in Northern Arizona

A kind of ecological treasure hunt is underway in northern Arizona … for thousands of springs scattered across the landscape. It’s such a vast area it’s hard to find them and monitor their health. So scientists are training ordinary citizens to help them in the search.

Little Elden Spring is tucked beneath a massive boulder west of Flagstaff. It’s not much to look at—a murky pool of stagnant water—but today it’s the center of attention.

Two dozen volunteers learn how to look at a spring with a scientist’s eyes. They map out the pools, rocks and plants guided by ecologists. They look for signs of disturbance by cattle or people. Chantel Cook drove all the way from Salt Lake City for the experience.  

“I know nothing about springs, this is my introduction to springs work,” Cook says.

And that’s the whole point of citizen science, Cook says. “It’s a double whammy. It is easier to get the work done—because there’s more funding available if you’re using volunteers—and then additionally you’re also doing an outreach and education program.”  

There’s a lot of work to be done on springs, says ecologist Larry Stevens. He leads the Springs Stewardship Institute at the Museum of Northern Arizona, and he partnered with the Grand Canyon Trust for this citizen science training.   

“We estimate that more than 90 percent of the springs in many of our landscapes have been ecologically impaired,” Stevens says. “In some places all springs have been completely obliterated. And therefore we’re losing resources, we’re losing species, we’re losing incredibly important cultural focal points on the landscape without even knowing it.”  

That’s why Stevens created Springs Online. It’s a database for citizens to upload their observations about springs. There’s even a smartphone app for that. “They can bring back basic information on flow, on the location of the spring; they can bring back photography of the site,” he says.

Stevens says the U.S. Forest Service has already used the database to identify springs that need restoration. It also acts as an archive of culturally valuable sites.  

“So many databases are unidirectional; you put information in and you never see it again,” Stevens says. “We’ve solved that problem with this database.”

But not completely, says Dan Kipervaser of the U.S. Forest Service. He wants to blend the citizen database with the existing federal database. “It is not easy, because there’s any number of ways you can describe things, but you have to pick one, and you have to have an endgame in mind when you design these databases of how they might be used,” he explains.

Not having an endgame is a big problem with citizen science, according to Kipervaser. Often volunteers just collect data: they don’t formulate questions or draw conclusions. So some projects amass a lot of information but it’s never used for anything.

For this project, Kipervaser thinks the data could be useful for the restoration work done by the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. “There are probably springs out there that nobody’s even found yet, and that’s another valuable piece of information we’d love to have,” he explains.

A chance to contribute to science is a big draw for volunteers like Crispin Wilson. He says he hopes the data will help inform land management.   

“This is something that everyone who lives on and near the Colorado Plateau should be aware [of]—where their water’s coming from and how important it is to keep it safe,” Wilson says.  

For others, the appeal is in the treasure hunt. Diane Meuser says she loves to get off the beaten path. “For me it’s having the experience of finding the springs and appreciating—by learning more—appreciating what I see when I get there,” she says. And as long as she’s there, Meuser says, why not collect some data.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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