Citizen Water Monitoring

What’s the Problem?

Urban runoff is the most difficult water pollution source to pinpoint and control. The water that comes off a person’s lawn and driveway goes down the gutters and drains to the ocean. Pollutants such as animal waste, sewage, litter, fertilizer, soap and pesticides can harm aquatic life in streams and the ocean, and pose a threat to human health. Unlike a point source pollution (an identifiable, single discharge to a waterbody), non-point source pollution such as urban runoff cannot be targeted and treated effectively with our current storm drainage system. The Clean Water Act, passed by Congress in 1972, is the driving force protecting surface water quality in the United States today. As our nation’s population and consumption grows, so does the degradation of our rivers and lakes. Human activity in the home, industry, and agriculture can raise pollution levels to a point beyond which water can naturally purify itself. It is our responsibility to reduce pollution in our waterways, for our own safety and for the preservation of natural ecosystems.

Section 303 (d) of the Clean Water Act requires that for each region of the US, lists of “impaired water bodies” be created and made available to the public. In Orange County, 33 of these impaired water body segments are currently on the Section 303 (d) list. As our coastline and beaches are major recreational, natural, and economic resources for Orange County, we know the importance of having a clean, healthy ocean. What remains to be widely recognized is the importance of water quality in those streams and flood control channels that drain to our ocean. Chances are most of us have driven over the Santa Ana River, or the various concrete storm channels that run through Orange County. We may have even seen the natural creeks throughout San Bernardino and Riverside Counties that eventually reach the ocean in Orange County. Unfortunately, we do not pay as close attention to the water quality of these creeks as we do the coastal waters.

While the Orange County Sanitation District closely monitors water quality at several points along the coast and off-shore five days a week, there has not been an equally close watch on the channels and rivers that drain to the coast. This absence of data is why the Orange County Coastkeeper began its Citizen Water Monitoring Program. For the past five years, we have strived to reach the goals of: providing data to the public, spreading awareness of the importance of good water quality, and encouraging local citizens and organizations to get involved.

What Do We Monitor, and Why?

Just as we depend on Earth to maintain certain temperature and atmospheric conditions for survival, aquatic organisms depend on streams and the ocean to provide a stable environment for their continued survival. When Orange County Coastkeeper sends a group out to a local flood control channel, they test for physical, chemical, and biological considerations that tell us about the health of that waterbody.


Flow (cubic feet per second)- We perform calculations to approximate how much water is flowing at our test site in a given amount of time. If there is contamination in the stream, we can use flow to measure the volume of water and concentration of pollution reaching the ocean. Flow can be an important sign of urban runoff. For example, if there is a heavy flow at a site that hasn’t received rain for months, we know that the excess water is coming from human activity.

Turbidity- Turbidity is a measure of how clear the water is. A high value of turbidity indicates the presence of suspended particles, which can be anything from sediment and plant material to animal waste and sewage. The problem with turbid water is that it prevents sunlight from penetrating through the water’s depths. The ability of aquatic plants to produce oxygen through photosynthesis is compromised by high turbidity.

Temperature (Celsius)- Water temperature can impact many aspects of the stream ecosystem. As temperature increases, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water decreases.


pH- A healthy stream will maintain a pH between the range of 6.5 and 8.5. A shift in pH can create stressful conditions in aquatic organisms’ habitat.. Metals can dissolve in water more easily at a low pH, which indicates higher acidity. A basic pH reading (above 7) can increase toxicity of nutrients such as ammonia and nitrate, and a reading at or above 10 is toxic to fish.

Conductivity- Defined as the ability of water to carry an electric current, conductivity indicates the presence of ions dissolved in water. Conductivity levels in a stream usually remain fairly consistent, so a sudden change in conductivity can indicate a recent discharge or pollution source has entered the water.

Dissolved Oxygen- Oxygen is necessary for the survival of aquatic life. Low dissolved oxygen levels are detrimental to organisms in a stream environment. The two main sources of dissolved oxygen in a stream come from the atmosphere and plant photosynthesis (oxygen is a byproduct). The major limiting factors of dissolved oxygen in a stream are:

Temperature- As temperature increases, the concentration of dissolved oxygen in water decreases.

Chemical demands- Some pollutants take oxygen for oxidation-reduction reactions.

Build up of Organic Material- Sewage and runoff can increase the presence of organic material, which increases the consumption of dissolved oxygen by decomposers.

Nutrients- While nutrients are essential for the vitality of a stream ecosystem, at higher levels they can be harmful to the aquatic organisms, and degrade the health of the stream. Fertilizers used in agriculture, golf courses, and general landscaping can add nutrients at levels far beyond which are healthy for a stream environment. Coastkeeper tests three of these nutrients:

Phosphate(PO4)- Necessary for metabolic reactions of plants and animals, and naturally occurring at low levels, phosphorous can be a “growth-limiting” factor for plants. Synthetic phosphates found in fertilizers, detergents and cleansers are a common source of pollution in streams. High concentrations of phosphates can cause algae blooms, which reduce dissolved oxygen. While there are no legal restrictions on phosphate, the EPA recommended concentration is 0.1 mg/L.

Nitrate(NO3)- Sewage and fertilizers are the main contributors of nitrates in water sources. Like phosphate, exceeding nitrate levels can cause algae blooms and reduce oxygen levels in streams. The legal limit for NO3- is 10 mg/L.

Ammonia(NH3)- Sewage and fertilizers are common contributors of ammonia added by humans to streams. Ammonia breaks down quickly to form nitrates and nitrites; therefore, the presence of high levels of ammonia in a water source may be an indicator of a recent spill or discharge. The acceptance level for NH3 (as set by the Regional Water Quality Board) is up to 0.09 mg/L.


Bacteria- While bacteria is present in all ecosystems, and in the digestive tracts of all warm-blooded animals (you included), high bacteria levels can increase the likelihood of getting sick from the disease-causing strains of bacteria. Some major sources of bacteria in our streams are manure used in agriculture, animal waste in storm water runoff, and sewage leaks into storm channels. As it is difficult and expensive to test for disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella and certain strains of E.coli, we choose to test three indicator bacteria types. Total Coliform, E.coli, and Enterococcus are not necessarily harmful to our health, but when we detect higher levels of these common bacteria, we can assume that the levels of disease-causing bacteria are also higher.

Biosurvey- Another way to measure the health of a stream is by the organisms that live in it. The California EPA offers the California Streamside Biosurvey as a procedure for measuring the number and types of organisms present in a stream.

“Aquatic insects and other invertebrates are the most common forms of animal life in streams. These creatures keep streams clean by consuming decomposing organic matter and algae, and provide food to other wildlife. Aquatic invertebrates (such as mayflies, worms, and leeches) have varying degrees of ability to withstand pollution and so may be used as indicators as water quality and habitat condition.” (California Streamside Biosurvery)

In the biosurvey procedure, we group the invertebrates we collect by their ability to tolerate poor water quality. The categories are sensitive, intermediate, or tolerant. Depending on the number of organisms found in each category, we can give the stream a water quality rating. For example, an absence of organisms that are sensitive to pollution would indicate that the stream had a level of pollution that prevents the survival of more sensitive organisms. If the majority of organisms collected in a stream are tolerant to pollutants, it would receive a “poor water quality” rating.

Metals- Testing for metals is an expensive but crucial aspect of our monitoring. Metals present in a waterbody can be extremely toxic to aquatic life, and can indicate illegal dumping activities. As testing for metals is costly, we send samples from each of our sites to a state certified lab once a year. In the “Title 22” tests, an extensive list of metals are tested, including cadmium, chromium, lead, copper, zinc, nickel, and silver.

Bioaccumulation- As organisms in rivers ingest metals, and are eventually ingested by other organisms, toxic metals move up the food chain. Even metals that are necessary for growth and development can become toxic at higher levels. Excess metals can build up in human tissue and cause several adverse health effects.

How Do We Monitor?

The core element in our Citizen Water Monitoring Program is found in the title—”citizen!” Without the commitment of dedicated volunteers, this program wouldn’t exist today. Using volunteers gives Orange County Coastkeeper the opportunity to monitor at a lower cost, so we are able to collect data on many streams that may not be assessed otherwise. It also gives concerned citizens and interns from universities an opportunity to get involved in protecting water quality, and is a great tool for promoting public awareness of water monitoring.

A Day in the Life of a Citizen Water Monitor

With the help of our trusty volunteers and interns, Coastkeeper staff drive to various sites around Orange County with a carload of monitoring equipment. We have two full sets of equipment to monitor pH, conductivity, flow, dissolved oxygen, and temperature in the field. This isn’t for the faint of heart; our volunteers pull on their rubber boots and climb right into the flood channels. Using water samples from the stream, we can perform tests for nutrients and turbidity on-site, and test for bacteria back at the lab. We also record observations about the surroundings, and identify the presence of various factors such as an unusual smell, foam on the water, and algae. If the volunteers are lucky, the Coastkeeper staff may treat them to an ice cream or coffee as a “thank you” for all their hard work (of course this is a treat for the staff as well!).

What Do We Do With the Data?

All of the data recorded at every monitoring event is entered into a database at the Coastkeeper office. With a large amount of data extended over a long period of time, we are able to identify sudden changes or gradual trends that occur at each site. Each project requires a Quarterly Report summing up the data for the past 3 months to be turned into the State Water Quality Regional Control Board. Our ultimate goal is to make our data and analysis available to decision makers, so that they can make educated decisions on issues that affect our watershed.

Past Projects

Orange County Coastal Watershed Monitoring Project:

The Coastal Watershed Monitoring Project commenced in December of 2003 and the Final Report is ready for the public. This project was primarily funded through Proposition 13, a state water quality initiative passed by California voters in March 2000, and required monthly testing of 8 streams that eventually drain to the Pacific in Orange County:

  • Buck Gully and Morning Canyon Creek– drain to Pacific Ocean in Corona del Mar
  • Borrego Springs Channel, Peter’s Canyon Channel, and Serrano Creek- tributaries to San Diego Creek, which drains to Upper Newport Bay
  • Bolsa Chica Channel and Wintersburg Channel- drain to Huntington Harbor
  • Delhi Channel- drains to the Newport Back Bay

What Were the Project Goals?

  • To monitor and quantify the impacts of non-point source pollution on coastal water— Non-point source pollution is any pollution that does not have a definite place of origin. The runoff that enters our streams and flood control channels is an example of non-point source pollution. Coastkeeper tests an upstream and downstream site on each channel, to gain a better picture of where the pollution may be coming from, and to identify trends from upstream to downstream
  • To assess the effectiveness of existing TDMLs—A Total Daily Maximum Load is defined by the US EPA as “a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can receive and still meet water quality standards, and an allocation of that amount to the pollutant’s sources.” Section 303 (d) of the Clean Water Act requires that TMDLs be set for each pollutant that exceeds the standards in an impaired water body. In 1998, the EPA first set TDMLs for toxic sediment, phosphorus, and nitrogen in Newport Bay and the San Diego Creek.
  • To develop quality controlled data for use by the Regional Water Quality Control Board—Orange County Coastkeeper prepares a Quarterly Report for this project every 3 months to be submitted to the RWQCD.
  • To educate the public about the impact of their behavior on coastal waters—If we can reduce urban runoff at the source, our job will be a lot easier in the future!

So What Came From this Project?

Through the Orange County Coastal Watershed Monitoring Project, Coastkeeper created awareness and involved citizens in our effort to protect our coastal water quality. After over two years of testing water quality at 16 sites, we have compiled a terrific source of information on our coastal water pollution problems and trends. The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board will utilize our data in revising the list of local impaired water bodies early next year. The Coastal Watershed Monitoring Project Final Report is now complete, and you can read the final report here: Final Report

Santa Ana River Citizen Monitoring Project

Our first monitoring project was conducted with funding from the federal EPA Grant 319h, which was named for the respective section in the Clean Water Act. For the Santa Ana River Citizen Monitoring Project, Orange County Coastkeeper took the lead role in a cooperative effort with the East Valley Resource Conservation District, the Riverside-Corona Resource Conservation District, and the Riverside Flood Control District. Coastkeeper headed the project by providing equipment, training, volunteers, and paperwork. Under a three year contract, we began monitoring 27 sites in the Counties of Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino in April of 2001.

Orange County Riverside County San Bernardino
Santa Ana River- 6 Site Temescal Creek- 3 Mill Creek- 3 sites
Silverado Canyon- 3 sites Golden Star Canyon- 3 sites  
San Diego Creek- 6 sites    
Santiago Canyon- 3 sites    

What Were We Looking For?

In addition to the overall goal of gathering a large mass of data from the creeks of the Santa Ana River Watershed, this project also addressed some particular areas of interest in our watershed:

  • Silverado and Santiago Canyons- The presence of many older cabins in the area raised concerns about the water quality of these creeks. Some people worried that the aging septic tanks could be leaking into the creek systems.
  • Golden Star Canyon- As it had never been tested for water quality, Golden Star Creek was of special interest in this study. We were able to see the development occurring in the upper area of the canyon, and study the impacts the development may have had on the creek downstream
  • Temescal Creek- During this project, Temescal Creek was an area bustling with rapid development, with sites below a treatment plant. Temescal Creek was another opportunity to study the effects of development on water downstream.

What Did We Find?

We concluded sampling and testing for the Santa Ana River Citizen Monitoring Project in August of 2003, and the Final Report was completed in December of 2004. Overall, the sites monitored displayed the classic poor water qualities associated with urban runoff— high nutrient and bacteria counts. Here are some of the more significant points of our findings:

  • Ammonia levels were generally acceptable, but increased considerably after rain events.
  • Nitrate levels were generally acceptable, but increased at our downstream sites.
  • Phosphate levels were consistently high at all sites tested.
  • Bacteria levels were consistently high at each monitoring event.
  • Conductivity and pH levels were relatively high at most sites tested.
  • There were no exceedences of metals tested at any sites.
  • Bioassessment typically indicated poor water quality.

So Why Was this Project a Big Deal?

The Santa Ana River Citizen Monitoring Project was an important study of our watershed. While areas such as the San Diego Creek had been heavily monitored, many of the 27 sites had little or no data when we began this project. The data and analysis from this project was turned into the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board to be used in their decision making. The project’s database is used by the Regional Board, consulting agencies, and schools as a tool for understanding the condition of our watershed. The successful Santa Ana River Citizen Monitoring Project served as a pilot project for the continuation of Orange County Coastkeeper’s Citizen Water Monitoring Program.

Where Can I Get More Information?

You can read  the Final Report for the Santa Ana River Citizen Monitoring Project: Final Report

Quality Control

With any study based on science, it is absolutely crucial to make sure you are getting quality results; this means you need quality equipment, a quality team, and for those components to work together. Here are some ways we strive to keep our data reliable and trustworthy:

  • Technical Advisory Committee (TAC)- Including representatives from the Regional Board, Universities, consulting firms, and private business, the TAC team is a vital resource to our project management from start to finish. Coastkeeper utilizes the expertise and knowledge of these professionals to create and adjust project plans, and to handle problems that may arise during the project.
  • Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP)- Coastkeeper allows no monitoring to occur until we have put together a comprehensive plan for our project. Together with our TAC team we develop plans training, data quality control, and sampling and testing procedures. Basically, the point of the QAPP is to assure that everything is being done to meet the standards the EPA and Regional Board. Our QAPP for each project must be approved and state-certified by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and serves as a guideline for all we do in that project.
  • Volunteer Training- We don’t send our citizens into the field blind! Each volunteer or intern who monitors with Orange County Coastkeeper completes a minimum of 3 training hours, and is given manuals with thorough instruction on monitoring procedures. We keep a close watch at each monitoring event to assure the citizens are handling the equipment and samples in a scientifically sound way.
  • In The Field- One of our quality control goals is to perform duplicate tests on 10% of our samples. At every monitoring event we perform one duplicate chemical test, either on phosphate, nitrate, or ammonia. We also do duplicate bacteria tests at our own lab for 10% or monitoring events. We can assume that two tests of sample water from the same stream should produce similar results. By testing two samples from the same creek, we can see if our equipment is meeting the standards for precision detailed in the QAPP.
  • Certified Samples- To see how accurate our equipment is, each quarter we send our equipment to a state certified lab to be tested against samples with known values. For 10% of our monitoring events we also send duplicate bacteria samples to the Orange County Sanitation District. As we perform the same procedure for bacteria testing as the OCSD, it is valuable for us to see how our results compare to theirs for the same water sample.
  • Calibration Sessions- We maintain our equipment and keep our staff and citizens up-to-date on test procedures in quarterly calibration sessions. Other water monitoring groups are invited to test their own equipment and practice test methods. At these sessions we work with known standard solutions, and keep detailed records for each person and piece of equipment they test. These sessions are an important way Orange County Coastkeeper assures our staff, volunteers, and equipment are working together to produce quality data throughout the duration of our projects.

Public Outreach

One of the most important parts of our mission at Coastkeeper is to get the word out about water quality. To reach the goals of protecting our coast, we must have the help of people like yonu—people who can vote, speak up to decision makers and change their water-use habits. That’s why with every project we do, including the Citizen Water Monitoring Program, Orange County Coastkeeper works to reach out to the public. Here are some of the ways we try to get out there in your world:

  • Watershed Education Program- At Coastkeeper we believe it’s important for children to understand what happens to water they use in their house or yards, or that falls to the ground as rain. That understanding can open the way to concern and action. For the past 5 years, Orange County Coastkeeper has introduced the concept of the watershed to thousands of kids. We have had a Coastkeeper booth at various community and school events, and have done classroom presentations with our watershed diorama. For more information on our Watershed Education Program (WHALES), please check out the education section of our website.
  • Community Meetings- Coastkeeper also believes it’s important to share the data we gather in the flood control channels and streams with the people who reside in those areas. During the Santa Ana Watershed Monitoring Program, we hosted public meetings at Silverado and Santiago Canyon, Temescal Creek, Millcreek, and San Diego Creek. Coastkeeper held these meetings to inform local residents of our program, and the results of our monitoring efforts.
  • Citizen Watershed Monitors of Orange County- Our associate director Ray Hiemstra is the facilitator of CWMOC, a partnership of several groups concerned with water quality in Orange County. We take a leadership role in creating a forum for the sharing of information and technology between CWMOC members:
  • CWMOC holds annual meetings to keep methods and equipment up to date
  • Coastkeeper coordinates 2 major CWMOC events per year:
    • California Coastwide Snapshot Day- Orange County Coastkeeper joins a statewide effort to monitor every waterbody that drains to the ocean in California. Coastkeeper offers free bacteria tests to groups who collect water samples at Orange County sites.
    • Worldwide Monitoring Day- Coastkeeper leads CWMOC’s participation in this global event to promote awareness of water monitoring. We offer free bacteria tests for water samples collected in Orange County waterbodies.

In the week before each of these annual events, Orange County Coastkeeper hosts an intercalibration session, where community groups involved in the monitoring events can test their equipment and practice testing methods.

What Can You Do to Help?

Coastkeeper has several exciting projects coming up, including a nursery water quality study and a storm drain study. We will be looking for volunteers, interns, and employees to go out in the field and test water during rain events and dry weather in the summer. Please contact Ray Hiemstra or call us at 714.850.1965 to get involved!

There are all kinds of ways you can help reduce the volume and contamination of urban runoff that eventually drains to the ocean by changing your own water-use habits. And now, some easy tips on how to protect water quality in your own water use activities (drum roll please):

Work to reduce the amount of water used at your home by:

  • Watering only early in the morning or after dusk
  • Making sure you don’t over-water with timed sprinklers
  • Landscaping with California native or “friendly” plants—they require much less water than many common non-native plants (please see the Coastkeeper Gardens project page for more information)
  • Cleaning your driveway by sweeping it instead of spraying it with a hose

Keep pollutants out of the storm drains by:

  • Emptying buckets of water with soap or chemicals into the sink (water used inside the home is treated at the sanitation district before draining to the ocean)
  • Washing your car at a car wash or on the lawn (water used at car washing facilities drains to the sewer system and is treated at the sanitation district )
  • Recycling your automotive oil
  • Disposing of harmful or toxic liquids at a hazardous material disposal site
  • Picking up after your pet EVERY time
  • Putting leaves and lawn clippings in the trash or compost bin, not the storm drain

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