Citizen Science in the Raritan River Basin

A NextGen Blog by Johanna Mitra, Stony Brook University.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Johanna Mitra is currently an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University. She is majoring in ecosystems and human impact with a focus on wildlife conservation. Her minor is in geospatial science. This is Part 3 in a series of NWNL NextGen Blogs regarding the importance of macroinvertebrates in aquatic ecosystems. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

The Raritan River Basin is the largest river system entirely within the state of New Jersey, covering over 1,100 square miles. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the US, with over 9 million residents. Like other US river basins, it also provides invaluable habitats to threatened wildlife, drinking water, and numerous recreational opportunities. Unfortunately, the similarities don’t stop there. Like many other water resources relied upon for urban and agricultural development, the Raritan River Basin has a history of being plagued with polluted runoff from farms and Superfund Sites and wastewater discharge.[mfn]Rutgers University[/mfn]

Historic old mill dam on the South Fork of the Raritan River

In order to combat these issues, many Raritan-based organizations have developed programs where volunteers can conduct water-quality assessments at sites within the watershed. The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership [LRWP] (a NWNL partner) is one such organization, with a mission of “restoring the Raritan through stewardship and science.” LRWP in particular focuses heavily on engaging its local communities in analyzing macroinvertebrate diversity, habitat quality and pathogen presence.[mfn]Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership[/mfn] I recently had the opportunity to interview LRWP’s Director, Dr. Heather Fenyk, to discuss how these water quality assessments allow decision makers and other stakeholders to determine at-risk areas and prioritize their restoration efforts. The success and thoroughness of water-quality testing in the Raritan River Basin wouldn’t be possible without the help of volunteers and communities conducting citizen science through programs like LRWP’s.

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science (also known as civic, community or crowd science) is not a new concept. The collaboration between scientists and untrained people that furthers scientific research has been around for decades, with some earlier citizen science projects still going strong today.[mfn]Keyles, Shayna[/mfn] For example, the National Audubon Society’s “Christmas Bird Count” is in its 120th year of collecting data on bird populations across the US.[mfn]Garbarino, Jeanne, and Christopher E Mason[/mfn] Some up-and-coming citizen science projects include popular apps like eBird and iNaturalist, users upload photographs of plants and wildlife and then record their location to seek help identifying different species.

Stream-water monitoring training by the Upper Raritan Watershed Association

These citizen science projects provide researchers and policymakers access to a wide variety of data and help further our understanding of the world’s biodiversity and natural resources.[mfn]Irwin, Aisling[/mfn] Additionally, Dr. Fenyk believes that when people know more about the environment they are working to protect, it fosters an ongoing commitment to its care. Part of LRWP’s mission involves bringing water-quality monitoring into schools, thus allowing students to assess their local aquatic ecosystems as part of their curriculum in a “hands-on, applied way that simultaneously delivers data to [LRWP].” In doing so, the public’s understanding of the scientific process is ultimately enhanced and stewardship of the natural world becomes an integral part of younger generations’ education.

Citizen Science in the Raritan River Basin

The Raritan River Basin is a strong example of citizen science hard at work. New Jersey’s Watershed Watch Network connects all “community-based and volunteer water-quality monitoring programs across the state.” Its mission is to provide workshops, training and data quality review so that volunteers are equipped to monitor and record physical, chemical and biological water quality conditions.[mfn]New Jersey Watershed Watch Network[/mfn]

Upper Raritan Watershed Association volunteers at pond studying bio-indicators of water quality

As members of the Watershed Watch Network, both the LRWP and the Raritan Headwaters Association [RHA] place an emphasis on biological assessments. They train volunteers to collect, count and identify macroinvertebrates at sites within the river basin.[mfn]Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership[/mfn][mfn]Raritan Headwaters Association[/mfn] Scientists can then use metrics developed specifically with New Jersey’s ecology in mind to rank each site’s health and pinpoint areas of concern.[mfn]Raritan Headwaters Association[/mfn] Conducting the same assessments in the same locations, year after year, provides insight into long-term trends in stream health.

Stream-water monitoring notes for trainees

In their latest report covering the years 1992-2017, RHA found more sites showed long-term improvements rather than declines in water quality. Forested areas with more tree cover and lower water temperatures consistently had healthier macroinvertebrate communities. However, sites adjacent to urban areas had less tree cover, warmer waters and significantly less diversity among macroinvertebrate populations. Areas which show improvement in macroinvertebrate communities can be designated as areas in need of greater protection from development. These efforts might include preserving nearby land to maintain forests or raising awareness among private landowners about improving their land usage. They may also include creating vegetated stream buffers to increase nutrients and mitigate the effects of runoff. Their proposals can also extend beyond the river, such as rethinking urban infrastructure to reduce runoff.[mfn]MacDonald, Kristi[/mfn]

The LRWP, unlike RHA, is a relatively new organization. Dr. Fenyk noted that the five years of data collected so far on the Lower Raritan by volunteers won’t “tell a story of change” just yet. However, she says the river has seen changes in other ways. She cites an increase in awareness of the issues affecting the Raritan and an overall reemergence of love for the river. For example, the Raritan River’s access points are busier than ever and the LRWP’s volunteer programs see as many as 500-600 volunteers a year. Working to restore portions of the river, while simultaneously monitoring its quality, will hopefully lead to an increase in macroinvertebrate populations, healthier ecosystems and ultimately more protections for the watershed overall.

Getting Involved

This NWNL Blog series has shown the indispensable role macroinvertebrates play in aquatic ecosystems – serving as predator and prey to other organisms, recycling necessary nutrients and acting as indicators of healthy water quality. Despite their small size, their absence from streams, lakes and rivers throws ecosystems way out of balance. Analyzing macroinvertebrate diversity plays an integral large role in water quality monitoring because it helps us better understand and protect our freshwater resources.

Youth volunteers in stream-water monitoring training

Programs such as those supported by the Raritan Headwaters Associationand the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership help educate and encourage awareness amongst the public, and also introduce younger generations to science and the stewardship of the natural world. As Dr. Fenyk puts it, “everyone, everywhere, can be an environmental steward.” For some, this might mean wading into a local stream to help monitor water quality. For others, it might be as simple as downloading a citizen science app to contribute to a growing global database. Supporting watershed stewardship can also merely come down to our choices as individuals. We can all reflect on how our lifestyle choices and consumption may harm or help the planet and its critical resources.

To get involved in water quality monitoring projects in your area, you can check out the National Water Quality Monitoring Council’s program directory map here!

Central Jersey Clean Stream volunteers with garbage found in the Raritan River


“About the Network.” New Jersey Watershed Watch Network, n.d. Accessed on July 16, 2020 by JM.

“About the Raritan River Basin.” Rutgers, n.d. Accessed on July 17, 2020 by JM.

Civic Science.” Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, n.d. Accessed on July 16, 2020 by JM.

Garbarino, Jeanne, and Christopher E Mason. “The Power of Engaging Citizen Scientists for Scientific Progress.” Journal of microbiology & biology education vol. 17,1 7-12. 1 Mar. 2016,

Irwin, Aisling. “No PhDs Needed: How Citizen Science is Transforming Research.” Nature, October 23rd, 2018. Accessed on July 16, 2020 by JM.

Keyles, Shayna. “Citizen Science: An Important Tool for Researchers.” Science Connected Magazine, September 13, 2018. Accessed on July 16th, 2020 by JM. – :~:text=Data suggests that participation in,the topic they are researching.

“Monitoring Water: Surface Water.” Raritan Headwaters Association, n.d. Accessed on July 16, 2020 by JM.

MacDonald, Kristi. “Stream Health in the North and South Branch Raritan Watershed (WMA8), New Jersey, USA, 1992-2017, Part 1: Temporal Trends and Regional Patterns in Benthic Macroinvertebrate Community Metrics.” Raritan Headwaters Association, July 2019. Accessed on July 18, 2020 by JM.

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