Why water testing?

There are three main reasons why we work to promote water testing through citizen science.

First, in order to protect water, we need to find out how healthy it is in the first place.

When you test a waterbody weekly or monthly, you are establishing what it known as ‘baseline data‘. In other words, you start to recognize what is normal for that waterbody. Maybe you start to notice that the waterbody’s pH is relatively high every month, or that it fluctuates throughout the season. Determining what is ‘normal‘ for any given waterbody will allow you to know immediately when values are off. Then, you can spring into action!

Water bodies are all different!

Each waterbody has its own unique chemistry and composition, which is entirely normal!

For example, natural levels of conductivity and pH can vary: the Rideau River’s conductivity is naturally between 300 and 500, while the Ottawa River’s is typically between 60 to 100 in unpolluted areas. So, a conductivity reading of 500 might be okay in the Rideau River, but would suggest something awry in the Ottawa.

This location in Gatineau is upstream from a suspected pollution source. They test here to provide a baseline for values near the pollution. Before, it’s usually normal. At the source, levels spike into the thousands!

Second, testing leads to connection.

While most Canadians say they care about water, many do not participate in its stewardship. Modern society is busy, complicated, and confusing, and developing an understanding of water chemistry is often difficult to do without a formal science education.

The solution? Testing with Water Rangers! We’ve found that when our participants test the water and develop an understanding of the basics, they connect to water in whole new ways.

Our testers often remark that testing:

  • Encourages them to visit new beaches or lakes
  • Helps them notice new things about their surroundings, such as pollution
  • Leads to a greater appreciation for wildlife

When people feel more connected to water, they’re more likely to act on behalf of it!

Want to learn more about how testing leads to connection?

We’ve been conducting formal and informal research on this very topic. Check out our behaviour research page to learn more!

Third, we have the power to make a difference!

Many water issues are complex, but testing doesn’t always have to be. Lab testing is expensive and time consuming, and isn’t feasible for every body of water all the time. Our test kits and other citizen monitoring tools give general indicators for water quality and let you know when you should investigate further. We don’t replace lab testing for things like E.coli, nitrates or phosphates, but our tests can help you determine when spending money on these types of tests is necessary!

Here are a few examples of how ‘simple’ things can make a big difference:

  • Temperature is interconnected with other indicators, and holds a large influence on water chemistry. Temperature also exacerbates problems: it can encourage increased bacteria and plant growth and reduce the amount of oxygen in the water.
  • A spike in conductivity over your ‘normal’ readings could indicate the presence of inorganic dissolved solids like those found in pollutants. If you test near sewer overflows, or polluted streams, you may often get high values. When conductivity levels are too high, it can disrupt the normal functions of an ecosystem and may mean fish have trouble reproducing.
  • Changes in pH, hardness and alkalinity can all indicate a change in chemistry that may have resulted from a spill, sewage, or increased algal blooms. For example, algae causes increases in pH because they are consuming all the carbon dioxide in the water. A spike in pH might indicate a growing problem: there’s an optimal level for your waterbody, and raising that could affect everything living in the water.
  • Keeping track of turbidity (water clarity) using the secchi disk helps you understand many different indicators, as well as promote shoreline planting (a great way to slow down erosion and run-off from farms and houses). Completely natural and man-made things can effect water clarity. Be sure to note if you’ve had a recent rainfall or if you’ve noticed unusual events near the test site. Your water clarity can be affected by:
    • A recent rainfall that has stirred up the bottom
    • How much sediment is suspended
    • Algae blooms
    • Natural mixing
    • Dumping or pollution sites
  • Dissolved oxygen is also a great way to determine if something has gone wrong, but there’s also lots of natural fluctuation. The best way to determine what’s normal is to test often! DO (dissolved oxygen’s nickname) is constantly affected by aeration (deeper water holds less oxygen), pressure (lower altitudes hold more oxygen than higher ones… think visiting the mountain top), conductivity (higher conductivity or salinity means lower dissolved oxygen) and temperature (colder water holds more oxygen than warm water). A drop in DO in one spot versus another means that you may have a problem. For example, if your DO levels are below 3, fish can’t breath.
  • Your observations and photos! These are so important to give context and remember exactly how things were. Our memories are unreliable things, so you should always record your details immediately, and take photos (we provide you with a waterproof phone case so you can do that right there and then).

Curious to learn more about your results? On our data platform, there are little question marks next to every test, where we try and give you information on how to test, why you’re testing for it, and what a ‘normal’ value is.

Every test has information so you can learn more!

[Water Rangers] has allowed us to collect baseline water samples at strategic points along our river, as our community faces a proposed mine which will sump into the river… this program gave the community a sense that we are proactively protecting the river we love, in case the mine is approved. It has given us confidence that if it is approved, we have baseline data, and can hold industry to a higher standard.

Sarah, tester from New Brunswick