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Calling All Civic Scientists: Water-Quality Testing Taking Place Across State

Calling All Civic Scientists: Water-Quality Testing Taking Place Across State
Jodi Sangster, a post-doc civil engineer specializing in environmental engineering, takes a water sample from the well spigot of Jeanne Hevner's Martell, Nebraska, land. July 1, 2017. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication

A team of researchers at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln needs the help of curious people.

Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, professor of civil engineering at Nebraska, is seeking citizen scientists to conduct water tests in August for a program that aims to track water quality across the state while also keeping Nebraskans safe.

Bartelt-Hunt and her research team are asking volunteers to test their well water once between Aug. 26 and Sept. 9 with a kit provided through the program. The kits measure nitrates, nitrites and phosphates in the water.

Nitrates, nitrites and phosphates play a role in all cellular life and are key components to fertile growing soil, but elevated levels in water can do harm. Elevated nitrates can cause disease in infants and pregnant women, and high levels of phosphorous can damage ecosystems.

“The testing is easy and it’s real-time data for our citizen scientists,” Bartelt-Hunt said. “If they show that they’ve got elevated levels, we provide information for helping navigate the options to treat their water.”

The data collected by this Citizen Science Network will also be used in research by Bartelt-Hunt and her partners in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the College of Information Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The citizen science water quality program was launched in 2018 to examine water quality and its effects on health and communities at large. The research team and the Citizen Science Network started with testing groundwater and surface waters.

“Over time, we want to look at how water quality and adverse health effects — specifically pediatric cancers and birth defects — intersect; and we wanted to get a baseline of water quality before the expansion of poultry production in the state, so we focused on eastern Nebraska for the first year,” Bartelt-Hunt, who also serves as the chair of the Department of Civil Engineering, said.

In 2018, 190 Nebraska citizens in 20 counties gathered 342 samples. In the spring testing round, 42% were found to have elevated nitrate levels and 26% of the fall samples had elevated levels.

“This demonstrated there is definitely a need for this kind of testing,” Bartelt-Hunt said. “This year, the project expanded to rural drinking water, especially private wells, because there is no regulation regarding regular testing of private drinking water wells. We wanted to provide them with a way to test their wells.”

Bartelt-Hunt said the research they’re conducting wouldn’t be possible without the civic science component. Through the program, she and her colleagues have also demonstrated that citizen science data is an accurate way to gather data. They published their findings recently in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology.

“Citizen science is a powerful tool because it is a way to gather a large amount of data that we may not otherwise get access to and it also helps people feel connected to their communities and to the science,” Bartelt-Hunt said.

Following March’s flooding, Bartelt-Hunt and her team are also using their expertise and what they’ve learned to explore a new partnership with state public health entities to address future disasters.

“We had more than 800 people contact us for testing kits after the flood,” Bartelt-Hunt said. “When people contacted us and indicated their well was flooded, we pointed them to UNL extension resource information for well testing following a flood, including the critical need of conducting a bacterial test.

“Unfortunately, our kits don’t have the bacterial test in them at this time, but now we want to scale this up and have a program in place for flooding response that includes a bacterial test. The flood highlighted need for water testing, and I think the interest will be ongoing.”

For more information about the project or to sign up as a tester, visit https://engineering.unl.edu/civil/civil-water-quality-citizen-science.

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