Local youth become citizen scientists

Posted 7/27/21

LABELLE- Local children are learning about the importance of clean water and citizen science ...

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Local youth become citizen scientists


LABELLE -- Local children are learning about the importance of clean water and citizen science, as they collect water samples from the Caloosahatchee River each week on Water Quality Wednesday.

Water Quality Wednesday is a weekly event where local children and their families are invited to learn about harmful algal blooms and other water quality issues, and how those how it can affect their community. Often, experienced scientists and environmental educators join the group as guest speakers, to help share their knowledge.

“Citizen science, the practice of engaging the general public in research and data collection, dates back thousands of years. However, researchers are often skeptical of the data collected by the public via citizen science volunteer programs,” according to UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “A new study from UF and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission debunks that theory. The study reports that there is no significant difference between data collected by volunteers and data collected by trained scientists.”

Each week, the group meets up at different spots in LaBelle, along the street river, and use water testing kits supplied by the Hendry-Glades Collaborative, to monitor the river’s temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, phosphate, coliform bacteria, and turbidity. They even get to centrifuge their water samples and examine them under the microscope.

Mostly, the youth involved in this ongoing project are learning about cyanobacteria, commonly called "blue-green algae." The hope of the organizers is that the children will be inspired to learn more about protecting local waterways, and possibly find a solution to Florida’s clean water crises.

Most of the water monitoring project is fun, and allows the kids to splash around in the river and experience the joy of being outdoors. But, the citizen scientists wear protective gear, like gloves, masks, and goggles, whenever an algal bloom is present, while collecting and testing their water samples.

This is because it is impossible to tell whether an algal bloom contains toxins just by looking at it. About 25% of the  cyanobacteria species known to be present in the Lake Okeechobee Waterway (which includes the Caloosahatchee River, Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie Canal and the St. Lucie River) are capable of producing toxins, but cyanobacteria capable of producing toxins do not always do so. Florida Department of Heatlh (FDOH) encourages the public to err on the side of caution and treat all algal blooms as of they may contain microcystin toxins.

Contact with high concentrations of microcystin toxins can cause skin and eye irritations. In severe cases, the toxins can cause damage to the liver and nervous system. Worldwide, exposure to high concentrations of algal toxins have been linked to fatalities of livestock, wildlife and pets and various health problems in humans.

After they test their water samples, the children upload their findings into  statewide, National, and international databases.

The data can be accessed by scientists and researchers, and even students working on water quality projects.

Water Quality Wednesday will continue through the school year, with the hope of spreading information and awareness about water quality throughout the community.

 When a blue-green algal bloom is present, FDOH advises:

  • Do not drink, swim, wade, use personal watercraft, water ski or boat in waters where there is a visible bloom.
  • Wash your skin and clothing with soap and water if you have contact with algae or discolored or smelly water.
  • Keep pets away from the area.  Pets and livestock should have a different source of water when algae blooms are present.
  • Do not cook or clean dishes with water contaminated by algae blooms. Boiling the water will not eliminate the toxins.
  • Do not eat shellfish in waters with algae blooms.

For more information about Water Quality Wednesday and how to participate, email waterqualitywednesday@gmail.com