Community-based water quality monitoring in Futaleufú

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By Lydia Blanchet and Rocio Gonzalez
Editor's note: The following is from Issue 22.
 
Collecting consistent water quality data is like taking the pulse of a river. Monitoring alerts us to problems in the aquatic ecosystem and collected data can be used to inform sound water policy decisions. In today’s world, water quality data is also an essential tool for understanding and predicting the myriad ways in which the rapidly changing climate affects our most valuable resource: water.
 
In pristine watersheds that are facing rapid development, as is the Futaleufú drainage in Chile’s Los Lagos region, the need to establish a water monitoring program is even more urgent. However, in Chile—and in Patagonia in particular—very few rivers are reliably monitored. Monitoring by governmental agencies is inconsistent at best, and data, when collected, is difficult to locate. So, in the absence of reliable governmental or academic monitoring entities, what other options exist?
 
Community-based water quality monitoring is an accessible, low-cost monitoring model that educates and empowers the community, helping to democratize water management. Through this citizen science model, local volunteers are trained in water sampling methods and provided with necessary equipment. After their training, volunteer monitors are responsible for taking consistent samples from a specific, predetermined site. Spread strategically around a watershed — for example, choosing sites both upstream and downstream of a suspected contaminator — these data can form a complete picture of the evolving health of a river or other body of water.
 
One of the most attractive aspects of a community-based model is its accessibility, both in terms of cost and lack of necessity for trained professionals. Arguably, however, the greatest benefit of a community-based model is the human engagement factor. As volunteer monitors, members of the community are engaged in the process of collecting and analyzing data. They are educated about and alert to changes in river behavior, and the factors driving these changes. Placing this data in the hands of the people is a step toward democratizing water management. As the only country in the world with fully privatized water rights, keeping citizens engaged and informed about the health of their rivers is especially important in Chile.
 
 
Futaleufu Riverkeeper is monitoring physical-chemical aspects of the water. Futaleufu Riverkeeper is monitoring physical-chemical aspects of the water.
 
 
Monitoring in Futaleufú
The town of Futaleufú in southern Chile is best known for its namesake Futaleufú River, which hosts some of the best whitewater for rafting and kayaking in the world. Lesser known is the Espolón River. The largest tributary to the Futaleufú on the Chilean side of the river, it runs through the town and is in many ways the river of the townspeople. On sunny days, people flock to the Espolon’s sandy beaches to swim and fish, and its friendly whitewater provides the perfect training grounds for beginner and experienced kayakers alike. Unfortunately, its proximity to the town has also made it the victim of human development; the upper reaches of the Espolón have been deeply scarred by gravel extraction, periodic overflow from the local wastewater treatment facility has contaminated its waters, and construction and urban development are quickly blossoming along its banks. Moreover, the recent arrival of invasive didymo algae has coated its bed in a thick, slimy brown layer, obscuring its usual vibrant turquoise color and affecting its ecosystem in ways not yet fully understood.
 
In order to track the effects of development on the Espolón and hold developers accountable, this summer Futaleufú Riverkeeper established Patagonia’s first community-based water quality monitoring program. We paired with Global Water Watch, an organization that has helped to develop community-based programs across the globe, to purchase monitoring kits and host a week-long training workshop for volunteer monitors. During the workshop, we certified 17 new volunteer monitors from the local community in physical-chemical and bacteriological sampling methods.
 
The goal of the program is to establish a baseline of water quality data and become the first line of defense in detecting and identifying emerging water quality issues. The program is a vital tool for the future management of our waterways, helping us to identify polluters and push positive environmental policy regarding land and water use. Accurate information greatly improves advocacy work and enables rapid responses to any new threats to the Futaleufú and its main tributaries.
In this first phase we are monitoring physical-chemical aspects of the water such as pH, alkalinity, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen, as well as bacteriological analysis. In future stages we hope to incorporate monitoring of bio indicators, such as macroinvertebrates, birds and amphibians.
 
Alongside the collection of data, we are working to build a strong educational element of the program to communicate the importance of conserving our rivers and staying alert to threats to them. Data will be summarized in annual reports and presented to the community, and, before the outbreak of Covid-19, we were working with teachers to partner with local science classes.
 
We also hope to expand the reach of the program beyond national boundaries into Argentina. Futaleufú is a binational watershed: the Futaleufú River flows from the Amutui Quimey Reservoir in Argentina, a huge artificial lake created by the Futaleufú dam. Several other rivers join the Futaleufú — known in Argentina as the Rio Grande — on its path through the Andes to Chile, including the Percy River. The “Volunteers for the Percy River” are a group of river enthusiasts who do cleanup campaigns and river-related environmental education. They also measure water quality using the Global Water Watch methodology. We envision a binational water monitoring plan for the future of the Futaleufú basin, which will allow us not only to detect emerging situations but open the door for more comprehensive water management at the watershed level.
 
 
Community kayaking race on the Espolon during Futa Fest a few years ago. Photo: Jimmy Langman/Patagon JournalCommunity kayaking race on the Espolon during Futa Fest a few years ago. Photo: Jimmy Langman/Patagon Journal
 
 
Science, community and river conservation
Luckily for us, water sampling is an inherently socially distanced activity, and the program has thus far been able to continue normally under the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been inspired by the dedication and enthusiasm of our volunteer monitors, upon whom the success of the program depends. An active and engaged community that keeps its eyes and ears on the river can quickly catch pollution and other threats and take effective actions to address those issues.
 
Best of all, our program helps to reinforce the socio-environmental fabric of Futaleufú. Our current volunteers represent a broad spectrum of the community: they are teachers and doctors, public officials and tourism entrepreneurs, housewives and construction workers, who are all united by a mutual concern for the environment. By bringing these people together and arming them with the necessary tools and knowledge, we strengthen their bonds to their community and to their rivers.
 
To connect with Futaleufú Riverkeeper, visit www.futaleufuriverkeeper.org. For more information on the Global Water Watch monitoring model, visit www.globalwaterwatch.org.