Citizens and scientists team up to create river forecasts

Oct 26, 2017

Citizens and scientists are teaming up on a project along the Boyne River. They’re hoping to create what they’re calling “river forecasts,” that could be used to predict the flow and temperatures of rivers.

Both scientists and community members that are hopeful their work could take off across the country.

When I find Chris Lowry, the researcher spearheading the project, he’s already knee deep in the Boyne River. He’s wearing a plaid shirt and tan waders, squinting at a box-like piece of equipment that measures water flow.

“So what I’m really doing is measuring the flow in the river to see how flow changes based on how deep the water is.”

Lowry is a researcher from the University at Buffalo, New York. He says his goal is to set up a sign with a thermometer attached to it so people walking by the river can text him water data.

“Citizens can send us text messages of things like the height of the water in the stream or the temperature in the stream and by taking these messages in we will have a model that we can predict things like streamflow and stream temperature.”

The texts are sent to a computer that virtually plugs the data into a spreadsheet that Lowry and his team will use to build a seven-day forecast for the river.

“As soon as this text message comes it will then be sent to the model and the model will adjust based on the message that comes in. It’ll be completely automated. Every Time a new observation comes in, boom, the model will get a little better.”

Lowry says building a model for rivers is important to conservation.

“Our model will be able to predict when the stream is high when the stream is low when the temperature hot and when it’s cool. So it lets us know when it’s a good time to use that resource and when it’s a good time to protect that resource.”

Lowry hopes his work, which is funded by a roughly 500 thousand dollar National Science Foundation grant and includes scientists from Indiana University and Saint Louis University, will be used to manage rivers across the country - using citizen data to create river weather models that let conservationists know how best to manage the waterways.

And, says Lowry, that makes citizens essential to the work.

“Without citizen scientists we have nothing. So that’s one of the points of coming up here. We spend time with the friends of the Boyne River, we talk about how the measurements are made, and they talk to us about the problems. What I realized after coming up here two months ago was one of my signs was unclear. We’re updating the signs so they are more clear so the citizen scientist send in the data I need and we’re speaking the same language.”

As Lowry talks members of the Friends of the Boyne River drive up and began unpacking their cars. The group works on conservation projects and was a natural fit for Lowry’s research.

Adam Kennedy is the president of the group, which he says has existed for roughly 20 years. He says the group enjoys taking the river measurements.

“It’s kind of like a doctor. You go get your physical and they check your blood pressure and your weight, on the river, it’s the same: we’re checking the temperature and flow, what are the levels.”

Kennedy and the Friends of the Boyne hammer in a post next to the river and put the finishing touches on a sign with a thermometer, its long wires trailing into the stream.

Mike Durbin is another member of the group. He says this kind of conservation is important.

“Someone has to take care of the river. We need caretakers. We need people who take care of stuff.”

The sign complete, Lowry and I take a reading of the water temperature and text the information to the number listed on the sign. I make Chris turn on the sound of his phone so we can hear the text send.

The signs first few measurements logged, both citizens and scientist will head to a barbecue in Boyne City. Together, they hope their work will help protect the Boyne River and rivers across the country.

But for now, both are happy to share a hot dog and a cold drink.