Citizen Science from the “Edge of the Lake”

by Michael P. Montgomery

To anyone familiar with the research that goes on here, it will come as no surprise that the University of California, Davis, has a wide circle of influence. The Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC), located more than 100 miles from campus and just across the Nevada border, is a prime example.

For over 50 years, the TERC has performed groundbreaking research on many aspects of the Lake Tahoe Basin, from water quality to forest ecology. Increasingly, and with help from the Center for Community and Citizen Science (CCCS), this research is incorporating citizen science.

The flagship citizen science project in the region is the aptly named mobile phone app, Citizen Science Tahoe, first released by the TERC in 2015. The app allows users to record their observations of Lake Tahoe’s nearshore environment, locate them geographically, and share them with scientists. Created in collaboration with the Desert Research Institute and the League to Save Lake Tahoe, Citizen Science Tahoe is now in its third iteration, fully updated as of May 2019.

A year ago, on December 5, 2018, the CCCS hosted a collabinar discussion about the app. Heather Segale, the TERC’s education and outreach director, was one presenter. When I spoke with Segale over the phone in late November, she told me she initially reached out to the CCCS for advice.

“[W]e didn’t have a lot of experience with this whole citizen science thing as we were getting this funding,” Segale said. 

Though the CCCS didn’t end up being an official partner on the project, members of its team provided important feedback during the app’s development, especially about the optimal way for users to interact with scientific data.

From the beginning, Segale told me, the goal was to make the app as accessible as possible. Unlike some of the other citizen science apps Segale looked to as models, which required special equipment and training, Citizen Science Tahoe is intentionally simple.

The app prompts users with questions. “Do you see any algae?” “How does the water look?” Upon inputting answers, users can then add additional comments and pose explanations about environmental features, such as a fertilized lawn adjacent to an algal bloom, that might explain the observed phenomena.

These types of questions are particularly important for Lake Tahoe because it has historically been one of the most pristine lakes in the country. Before urbanization, the lake was virtually devoid of pollution, algae, and stream-washed sediments. The water column was so clear that boaters could routinely see 100 feet below the surface. Starting in the 1960s, however, water clarity began to decline. Since 1988, annual average visibility has not exceeded 80 ft.

The TERC would like to see Lake Tahoe’s water visibility return to 100 ft. To make that happen, detailed knowledge of seasonal and spatial changes in water quality is a requisite—which is, of course, where Citizen Science Tahoe comes in.

“We were getting all this instrument data, and one of the things we wanted to figure out was how […] to basically match the instrument-detected numbers—quantifiable numbers—with [people’s] perception,” Segale said. “[The instrument will] tell you, like, the nephelometric turbidity units are 1.7. […] Well, what does that mean? […] [W]hen do people actually say, hey that looks like brown water to me instead of clear water?”

By crowdsourcing information in this way, the TERC hoped not only to better understand the lake, but to help others outside the formal research community understand it as well. So far, the results have been put to good use, even if there are not enough of them for a formal analysis. The League to Save Lake Tahoe has organized beach cleanups based on reports of litter and runoff; the Desert Research Institute has studied users’ photographs of freshly fallen snowflakes—a new feature of this year’s rebooted app, and part of a Nevada-wide project called “Stories in the Snow”—to better understand precipitation patterns over the Sierra Nevada; and the TERC has incorporated the app in its educational programs about pollution and algae for Tahoe-area schoolchildren.

In the future, Segale said, the TERC plans to do more to promote the app. There is also talk of designing similar citizen science apps for other lakes, including Clear Lake in California’s Northern Coast Ranges, and potentially even a lake in Chile, Lake Panguipulli, that faces a threat to its water quality similar to what Lake Tahoe has faced since the 1960s.

Of course, the Chilean version of Citizen Science Tahoe—Citizen Science Panguipulli, we might call it, or rather the translation of that in Spanish—is still years in the future, if it is in the future at all. Who knows; maybe the Center for Community and Citizen Science can help out with that one, too.

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