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Volunteer Monitoring

Minimum Measure: Public Involvement/Participation

Subcategory: Stormwater-Related Activities

Photo of a group of volunteers monitors a stream to obtain water quality information


Volunteer monitoring programs encourage citizens to learn about their water resources. These programs:

  • Build awareness of pollution problems,
  • Train volunteers about pollution prevention,
  • Help clean up problem sites,
  • Provide data for waters that might otherwise be unassessed, and
  • Increase the amount of water quality information available to decision makers at all levels of government.

The volunteers often become educators themselves, informing inquisitive passersby, family, colleagues, and friends about stormwater.

Volunteers conduct a variety of activities including:

  • Analyzing water samples for dissolved oxygen, nutrients, pH, temperature, and many other water constituents,
  • Evaluating the health of stream habitats and aquatic biological communities,
  • Making inventories of streamside conditions and land uses that may affect water quality,
  • Cataloging and collecting beach debris, and
  • Restoring degraded habitats.

Citizen monitoring can provide important data and information during the development of a stormwater program. These data help determine what management practices and strategies are most appropriate for a particular community or set of issues. State and local agencies can use volunteer data to delineate and characterize watersheds, screen for water quality problems, evaluate the success of best management practices, and measure baseline conditions and trends.


Volunteer monitoring programs can be implemented in any community to augment agency-obtained data. Volunteer monitoring programs are organized and supported in many different ways. Projects might be entirely independent (initiated by volunteer groups) or associated with local, state, interstate, or federal agencies. Programs might also be associated with environmental organizations or with schools and universities. Financial support for these programs might come from government grants, partnerships with businesses, endowments, independent fund-raising efforts, corporate donations, membership dues, or a combination of these sources.


In general, volunteer monitoring programs work cooperatively with state and local agencies in developing and coordinating technical components. Whenever data are collected for use by state and local agencies, a quality assurance project plan is often developed. These plans provide guidance for volunteer training, procedures for sample collection and analysis, and information on data recording and dissemination. Volunteer groups whose primary goal is education usually implement straightforward assessment methods and do not focus on quality assurance plans.


Volunteer programs promote the stewardship of local waters. By educating volunteers and the community about the value of local waters, the kinds of pollutants threatening them, and how individual and collective actions can help solve specific problems, volunteer monitoring programs:

  • Establish a connection between watershed health and the citizens' individual and collective behaviors,
  • Build bridges among various agencies, businesses, and organizations, and
  • Create a constituency for local waters that promotes personal and community stewardship and cooperation.

Establishing a Volunteer Monitoring Program. If a volunteer monitoring program is not available, a new program can be started. Starting a volunteer monitoring program is not a simple task. It requires:

  • Money for equipment and possibly for staff,
  • Appropriate meeting, training, and laboratory facilities,
  • A network of knowledgeable people (such as educators, extension agents, and local government representatives) who are interested in the project and willing to advise and assist with the efforts,
  • Connection to or sponsorship by potential data users who can help plan the project to meet their own needs and the volunteer program's needs, and
  • Organizational skills to manage and maintain the project.

Time will be needed to make contacts in the community, design a monitoring plan, develop training sessions, recruit volunteers, revise the program as it matures, raise funds, analyze the data, and report back to the volunteers and the community.

Some of the lessons learned by other volunteer programs include:

  • Start small. A pilot project that tests methods, training sessions, and organizational skills can keep volunteers from being overwhelmed and allows them to evaluate and refine the project before moving on to more ambitious efforts.

  • Keep goals realistic. Most volunteer data are used to educate the community and to screen for potential problems. Although it is important to strive for data quality, it is also important to realize that for most projects a high degree of data quality assurance is not necessary.

  • Planning pays off. Few things are more frustrating than collecting a year's worth of data and then finding that the volunteers have no idea how to analyze them, that the methods used are not considered valid, or that sites were sampled in the wrong locations.

  • Make connections. The more people in the community and within local and state agencies who are aware of the program, the more friends and supporters the program could have. Potential data users should be included in all phases of the project's development.

  • Develop volunteer leadership. Volunteer leaders within a project provide the vision for setting goals and the commitment to achieve them. They also enable a project to develop and grow without stagnating. Many opportunities should exist within the program that allow volunteers to develop as leaders.

  • Pamper volunteers. Volunteers give up their free time to come to meetings, attend training sessions, and trudge out to monitoring sites. Social opportunities should be provided, and volunteers should be rewarded for their hard work.

  • Use the data. Findings can be reported to volunteers and to the community. Volunteers can present monitoring results at fairs and town meetings or can send findings to appropriate contacts in state and local governments. Also, a newsletter or data report can be created to inform the public about what has been accomplished. Volunteers should coordinate with state and local officials to transfer data and analyses. Volunteer groups can present findings at town meetings and prepare reports or brochures to distribute to interested citizens.


Recruitment and quality assurance are the two major determinants of an effective monitoring program. Advertising volunteer opportunities and facilitating volunteer groups are key to a successful program. Quality assurance can be achieved by providing volunteers with extensive and detailed guidance as well as supervision to produce data of sufficient quality to use in watershed analyses.


Volunteer monitoring programs have several limitations. First, getting volunteers to commit is one of the major limitations to any volunteer effort. Other limitations include obtaining equipment, finding sites, and getting people to volunteer their time, effort, and expertise. Second, because volunteers do not necessarily have water quality sampling training, the quality of their data is questionable even if a quality assurance program plan(QAPP) is followed. There is no guarantee that rigorous sampling protocols will be followed precisely, especially when sterile procedures are required. Additionally, some data gathering, such as benthic macroinvertebrate sampling and identification, requires considerable skill. Extensive training and supervision can help alleviate these data quality issues, but can be expensive. However, depending on how the data are used, strict procedures may not be necessary. For example, volunteer monitoring data can be used to target agency sampling by identifying sites with probable water quality problems.


Volunteer monitoring programs are funded through a variety of sources. In some cases, state and local water quality or natural resource agencies sponsor the volunteers and contribute staff, equipment, and services such as data analysis. Some programs receive funding from federal agencies such as the EPA, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service.

In addition, many volunteer programs receive private support through foundations, universities and other research centers, or corporate sponsors. This support may include funding for a full- or part-time organizer, equipment, training workshops, and data analysis. Some agencies or organizations also offer support by allowing volunteer monitoring programs to use their facilities and equipment. In many programs, volunteers themselves also help pay for monitoring by purchasing their own equipment and hosting training sessions.


USEPA. 1997. EPA's Volunteer Monitoring Program. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC. []. Accessed September 12, 2005.

USEPA. 1998. Starting Out in Volunteer Monitoring. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC. []. Accessed September 12, 2005.


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Last updated on May 24, 2006