When floating along the rocky Haw River, you may feel like you’re alone on a remote mountain river when in fact, the Haw cuts through the vibrant Piedmont region of North Carolina, within spitting distance of the major cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point. Outdoor recreationists can find hiking and paddling trails, beaches, fishing holes, camp sites and abundant birding opportunities. The Haw River of the 21st century vitalizes this expansive natural playground, much in part to local efforts to monitor and restore its waters and surrounding landscapes.
In 1982, a group of concerned citizens founded the Haw River Assembly (HRA) to restore and protect both the Haw River and its outlet into Jordan Lake. These guardians of the Haw recognized the importance of the health of the Haw to the region could no longer be an unspoken thing. Through the present day, HRA employs a strategy of monitoring, advocacy, engagement, education as well as restoration to prevent pollution, promote stewardship, and empower the local residents to be guardians of the Haw River.
For decades, monitoring has provided a linchpin to all of the work of the HRA. Why is monitoring so important to the organization’s mission?
“[When] we know about the problems in the Haw… we’re able to take more action to mitigate the problems at the source,” explains Emily Sutton, Haw River Assembly Waterkeeper.
A Brief History of the River
The Haw River has a rich, winding history, much like the river itself. The communities and usages of the River have reshaped the River multiple times. For thousands of years, the Sissiphaw communities lived throughout the basin now known as the Piedmont Region. We can assume through archeological efforts that these communities thrived thanks to the riches they pulled from the natural world. Early arrivals from Europe traded with these communities, taking supplies and leaving behind devastating diseases as well as unjust land use agreements. By the late 1700s, German, Irish, and Scottish immigrants had displaced the last few members of the decimated Sissiphaw. The immigrants put down roots and began changing the landscape to meet their grandiose plans: damming the river and tributaries; razing forests for farms, plantations, and fuel; and, dumping pollutants from fledgling industry directly into the river. At the advent of the Industrial Revolution, ambitious capitalists strategically built textile factories along the Haw’s banks, putting the Haw’s flowing waters to work to power their large looms and machines in order to produce yards and yards of cotton. In fact, at one point the downstream river color used to match that of the dyes being used in the mills. We can assume now the health of the Haw mirrored each era of change, with flora and fauna populations declining and public health issues rising as pollution and development degraded the basins natural ecosystem functions.
As we move through our current century, the landscape of the Piedmont region continues to change, all with the Haw coming along for the ride. Large cities have expanded, encroaching on local rural communities. Textile mills sit abandoned and new growth forests have succeeded failed farm lands. Unlike the past, however, a renewed sense of stewardship works to safeguard the Haw from the worst threats. Community members may notice the Haw has naturally colored water and fish swim freely, this hasn’t happened without concerted effort.
Monitoring for Understanding and Decision-Making
The Haw Riverkeeper, Emily Sutton oversees multiple monitoring programs benefiting the Haw River. At the most basic level, these programs each collect, store, and analyze water quality samples. The monitoring results become critical information intended to address a multitude of issues facing the river basin and the communities through which it flows. Once compiled, the data bolsters the understanding of the river. Data on its own provides a window into the health of the Haw, but it provides little hope of sparking change unless it is coupled with communication tools such as narratives and visualizations that give voice to the river and its threats.
Anecdotal observations shouldn’t influence decision making until they are backed up by sound data. Supported by data, these stories provide incredible influence. The casual “I see muddy waters after storm events” and “I haven’t caught a bass in years, I used to catch them all of the time” can now be verified and understood with a scientific spin. When HRA hears that someone hasn’t caught a bass they can look at data to understand, hypothetically, that “turbidity levels in the upper Jackson Lake increase at least 35% after heavy storm events and flooding. This reduction in water clarity threatens fish habitats during spawning months which may result in lower bass populations.” To accomplish the feat of featuring data in understanding and advocating for the river, each program collects data relevant to the research question at hand, a reality that results in large volumes of data stored within the HRA.
For example, data collected by the Haw River Assembly has supported the language in proposed bills by NC, Representative Pricey Harrison. These bills, introduced during the 2020 North Carolina General Assembly legislative session address PFAS. These bills (House Bill 1108, House Bill 1109, and House Bill 1110) called for the elimination of the use of PFAS in North Carolina, disclosure requirements for discharges, and enforcement by the Department of Environmental Quality.
The ultimate goal of these monitoring programs is to get data into the hands of decision-makers. Unfortunately, the path to delivering data is mundane, complex and prone to human error. Collecting, managing this data, and putting it into formats that deliver meaningful messages in a timely manner requires a lot of overhead. To reduce the mountain of work while improving outcomes and confidence in data quality, the Haw Riverkeeper, partnered with The Commons and the Internet of Water to modernize the data management system for all of her water quality monitoring data. The modernization project hinged on Haw River Assembly adopting Water Reporter into their monitoring programs.
Digitizing Monitoring Operations for Effective Outcomes
The Haw Riverkeeper manages multiple programs with data streaming in from different sources. Ultimately, it’s a lot of data to manage and keep in one standard format. On top of simply coordinating collection of all the data, storing, analyzing, and turning the data into digestible information for various audiences used to take an incredible amount of time. Time spent managing data keeps the Riverkeeper off the water and being a voice for the river.
The Water Reporter platform was chosen to support this modernization effort because
Water Reporter can optimize the workflows established at Haw RiverWatch, from data collection through management, analysis, visualization, and sharing of results. Ultimately, along with daylighting more data for decision-making, Water Reporter allows the data managers to spend more time in the sun and away from computer screens transcribing, scrubbing, and moving around data.
Monitoring Programs at the Haw River Assembly
This program trains volunteers to collect quarterly samples, annually. This monitoring program operates much like how people try to schedule annual physical check-ups with their physicians, even when there are no known illnesses, just keeping track of our health is important to catching problems as they arise.
Participants collect information on the chemical, biological, and physical composition of the water body and surrounding landscapes at specific monitoring sites. The information that these volunteers collect helps answer long term questions about river health. For example, does the stream have access to a floodplain? How much erosion has occurred since the last visit? How healthy is the macro-invertebrate life right now? Volunteers also take pH and dissolved oxygen readings to keep a pulse on,overall river health. Spikes can indicate pollution or disturbances upstream that may threaten water quality. And all of that information is collected via a survey and, once organized and verified, added to the data set managed at HRA and sent to the state of North Carolina. With this data, Haw Riverkeeper can keep a critical ongoing record of the baseline health of the river.
Swim Guide E.Coli Monitoring
There are a lot of public access points with sandy beaches along the Haw River. During the summer months, community members visit these locations to enjoy a refreshing dip in the cool waters. The Haw Riverkeeper personally tests for e coli at each of these locations weekly during the summer months. High e coli levels indicate the presence of fecal matter. So when e coli levels exceed acceptable levels, the water quality presents a public health threat and it’s not safe to swim there. The only way to know if it’s safe to swim is to test the water for e coli and share those results with the public.
A calendar does not determine the frequency of turbidity monitoring. Rather, the Haw Riverkeeper samples turbidity levels after huge storm and flooding events. Turbidity measures the level of clarity of water. High turbidity levels indicate high levels of sediments in the water, an indicator of excessive upstream erosion. The Haw carries so much sediment into Jordan Lake that it can smother aquatic plants and decimate underwater habitat. As you can imagine, fish populations struggle in chronically turbid waters.
PFAS in Drinking Water
The Haw River Assembly has also been at the forefront of monitoring for PFAS — a group of emerging contaminants in North Carolina’s waters. PFAS arrive in the water from upstream dischargers who discharge these pollutants directly into the Haw River. The Haw Riverkeeper has been monitoring upstream and downstream from pollutant discharge sites to get a sense of the presence and concentration of these harmful pollutants. In the midst of the pollutant area is a town that draws their drinking water directly from the River. This is data that is critical to distribute to the public because they are so impacted by this issue.
Data Migration, Data Source Set Up, and Website Build
Communicating the entirety of the purpose and results of a monitoring program to broad audiences cannot be achieved by sharing spreadsheets.
“You can look at a spreadsheet and show what the number of e coli counts are for samples. But if you can’t actually see on a map visually where that location is in a stream and what the upstream impacts could possibly be, then you can’t really make the tie of what could be causing that,” explains Emily Sutton.
To manage the monitoring program data, individual data sources were created to store data in Water Reporter. Going forward, the Water Reporter embeddable maps offers Haw River Watch a virtual platform where visitors can effortlessly see monitoring locations and click in to examine the wealth of information delivered via samples of water.
Mapping as a Web Page Media Asset
The Haw River Assembly recognized that they needed to modernize their monitoring programs to not only streamline data management but also optimize communication through means that are accessible and digestible to vast audiences.
The Haw River Assembly shares their data with anyone that asks for it. The Department of Water Resources uses the data for their integrated water quality report. Water Basin planners look at the data to get big picture, full story ideas that they take into consideration as they look at how nutrients are managed and how to address stormwater issues. HRA works with representatives in the House to introduce bills to regulate and increase transparency. So the state agencies have the water quality information that they need to regulate.
Ideally, HRA wanted a data sharing system that supported porting entire data collections as well as analytical results to multiple audiences and stakeholders with varying end uses and understanding of the data. To achieve this goal, The Commons and the HRA worked together to build a website that showcases the following:
- Live maps powered by Water Reporter that showcase latest samples and trends for specific monitoring programs
- Background information about the monitoring programs
- Calls to Action to encourage engagement and financial support of future monitoring activities
- Opportunities to export data
Water Reporter’s customizable maps can help communicate the critical information about the Haw River. Multiple maps or layers of data drive home distinct messages to broad audiences. People who use the Haw to swim need different information than those receiving water in their kitchen faucet from the river. Prior to use of Water Reporter, the Haw River Assembly often shared spreadsheets of their data with the public.
“We want to push this data out to the public so they know what’s in their surface water, in the Haw, and what’s in their drinking water,” explained Sutton.
Building Systems to Communicate and Share Analyzed Data
We’re showing that there is an impact on water quality. We hope that community groups using this information can come up with solutions. Anyone can access and review the maps by visiting the Health of the Haw website. Data is updated regularly after monitoring activities are completed.