Thursday, October 22, 2009

Planning a Beach Monitoring Program: Initial Considerations

If you have decided to join the Blue Water Task Force and start testing the water at your local beaches, this posting is for you!

In order to set up a successful water-testing program, there are a number of things you should consider first and plan with your chapter.

1. Why do you want to test the water? What are you concerned about?

It is important to have a clear objective for your water-testing program before you begin. A clear objective or defined purpose will help you design a water testing program to meet your chapter’s unique interests and needs. All the rest of the details can then follow.

Does your chapter suspect a pollution problem at a particular beach? Are there beaches in your area that are not being tested by the authorities? Are you looking for a program to activate your membership or to reach out to youth? Perhaps you have a data need for an ongoing campaign.

FAQ #3 in previous post describes the purposes and objectives of different BWTF chapter programs. There is also a really good discussion of sources of beach pollution in Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) “Testing the Waters” report that might give you some ideas on what factors could be affecting your local beaches.

2. Who else is testing your beaches?

Before you choose what beaches you want to sample, or if additional testing is even necessary, you should find out who is monitoring water quality in your area and which beaches they are sampling.

A good place to start looking is in the “Testing the Waters” report. By following this online report to your state’s summary, you will find all of the government agencies that are conducting beach monitoring, a discussion of the standards and procedures used to issue swimming advisories and beach closures, and a list of the covered beaches in your area.

Much of the same information can be found on the Surfrider Foundation’s State of the Beach Report, as well as discussions of local water quality issues and contacts to state and local beach monitoring programs. Follow the State of the Beach Report to your state and click on Water Quality.

There could also be other volunteer groups testing the water in your watershed. There is a directory of volunteer monitoring groups on the EPA’s website. You might be able to find another local group in this directory.

You can also look to the government agencies and other NGOs who are running beach monitoring programs in your area to look for opportunities to partner. Many chapters have formed very successful partnerships to implement their Blue Water Task Force programs.

3. Where & when should we sample?

Once you determine who is testing in your area, look for any gaps: either beaches that aren’t being sampled or perhaps months or seasons when no testing is being done at all. You also might want to test the water at the most popular surfing beaches or at beaches where you suspect or know there are sources of pollution nearby.

You can set up your monitoring plan to sample weekly, biweekly or monthly. You might want to sample throughout the year or just during the fall, winter & spring months when there might not be anyone else doing any monitoring in your area. How many beaches and how often you sample are going to largely depend on how much you are able to spend, how many volunteers you have and of course, the objective of your particular testing program.

4. How much money can my chapter afford to spend on this program?

Testing water costs money. It could run anywhere from $2000 - $6000 to get a water testing program started, with an ongoing cost of approximately $6 per sample (see FAQ #5 in previous post).

Does your chapter have funds to run this program already in the bank, or will you need to hold fundraisers to raise the money? It is important to consider cost and your chapter’s available funds when choosing which method to use and how many samples you plan on collecting.

5. What method should we use to analyze our water samples?

You will need to choose between using an IDEXX Quantitray Sealer or the multiple test tube method. The sealer is easier to use, generates less disposables and gives more specific results. It is also an EPA approved method, but it is more costly, at approximately $6000 for the initial laboratory set-up. The multiple test tube method costs about $2000 for the initial laboratory set-up, and certainly would be a good start for a chapter interested in trying out the program. Both set-ups come with enough supplies to run approximately 200 water samples. Once supplies need to be replaced, it costs about $6 in expendable materials to process each sample. Cost is usually the deciding factor in method selection.

Contact Mara Dias ( for a complete list of laboratory equipment and supplies needed and current pricing.

6. How many people in my chapter are interested in volunteering their time to collect and process water samples? Do we have one or two committed volunteers to coordinate the program?

In order to build a successful, volunteer water testing program, you need to make sure that the work required does not exceed the capacity of the volunteers that you have to implement the program (see FAQ #7 in previous post). For instance, you can’t monitor 30 beaches every week with 2 volunteers. When you design your sampling plan and decide on the number of beaches you want to monitor and the frequency of sampling, you need to consider the number of volunteers that you have, the amount of time they are able to volunteer each week (or month), and the distance your target beaches are from each other and from the lab.

This is also a good time to consider how you can recruit volunteers into the program and provide incentives to keep people motivated. Volunteer turn-over is often the biggest challenge faced by volunteer water testing programs.

7. Where will we set up our water-testing laboratory?

While the space requirement isn’t huge (see FAQ #8 in previous post) you do need a place to store your equipment and supplies and process the water samples. A central location near the target beaches, that is easily accessible to volunteers for sample drop-off, works best. Samples need to be kept cool during transport and must be prepared within 6 hours of being collected.

Some chapters have formed partnerships with environmental labs, aquariums & other non-profits to host their lab space.

8. Do we have to worry about complicated Quality Control procedures?

The quality control requirements for this volunteer water-testing program are minimal. It is important to follow the outlined procedures step-by-step each time you sample and perform lab work, but at least in the beginning, there is no reason for a volunteer laboratory to adopt complicated Quality Assurance Project Plans (QAPPs) that are required of labs whose data have regulatory and enforcement authority. For instance, a county department of health laboratory that runs samples so that decisions can be made to close or open beaches would have to follow strict QAPP procedures.

Besides following the outlined procedures exactly, it is also recommended that chapter water testing programs run a blank with their samples and an occasional duplicate sample to check for precision and bias in their results.

9. What will we do with our data?

Before you start collecting water samples, you should determine what you are going to do with your data. There is an online database, accessible through the Surfrider Foundation’s website, where each chapter’s BWTF data can be stored and viewed. Someone at Surfrider headquarters can help build a data input page specifically for your chapter, showing your local beaches or other sample locations. For more information contact Mark Babski,

In addition to entering your data into this database, there are a host of different media you can use to share your data and raise the visibility of your water testing program and your chapter in your community. Many chapters post their data or put a link to the BWTF database on their websites. You can prepare a brief report to email to your chapter members and other interested parties, local newspapers, local government or surfshops. You could also post a flier (see example) at the beach and around town showing your data. Many student-based BWTF programs hold community events at the end of a school year or semester to present their findings and discuss local water quality issues. Some even make presentations before their city council.

You should also identify who you are going to bring your concerns to if your data make you suspect that there is a pollution problem at one of your testing sites. This could be the local department of health or environmental agency, city council or mayor. Read how Surfrider chapters have used the findings from their water testing programs to bring awareness to a pollution problem and to motivate their local governments to investigate the sources of pollution and take steps towards remediation.

10. How do we know if our program is successful?

It is always wise to take the time to step back from the routine of running your water-testing program to evaluate what is working well and what areas could be improved upon. If you plan this evaluation from the onset, then you will be more likely to make this effort. Ideally this evaluation would include a discussion with your volunteers and the chapter’s executive committee and would be presented at a chapter meeting to ensure that the water-testing program remains tied-in with the local chapter’s needs and interests.

11. Questions?

If you have any questions on anything you’ve read on this page or about starting up a water-testing program please contact Mara Dias, Surfrider’s Water Quality Coordinator, at

You may also find some useful tips in the EPA’s guide for starting a volunteer monitoring program.

No comments: