Mapping the Waters We Love
Web Technology Gives Waterkeepers an Opportunity to Show What They’re About
By Bart Mihailovich, Spokane Riverkeeper
Although I’ve long been impressed with the Kansas Riverkeeper website, I was a little slow to get the message it was sending me. No other site throughout Waterkeeper Alliance features such a thorough array of map resources. But the question I didn’t ask was, why not? In fact, why did many sites present no maps at all?
The light went on for me after Spokane Riverkeeper’s technical advisor Ron Hall and I met, over Skype, in early 2011 with Kansas Riverkeeper Laura Calwell and Dr. Cynthia Annett, the Kansas program’s science advisor. Annett told me that day of an informal study that she’d made of Waterkeeper websites. One night she stayed up till dawn visiting every site to determine how hard it was to find maps of the Waterkeepers’ watersheds. To her surprise, and very much to my surprise as I heard this, very few members offered maps of their watersheds either on or within a click or two of their homepages. I thought, how could that be? Here we are, stewards of watersheds around the world, ever wiling and able to speak for hours about them, yet generally failing to perform the simple act of showing the world where we are and what we represent.
So, naturally, I re-examined my Spokane Riverkeeper website, and realized it was one of the laggards. It was then and there I became a “citizen mapper.”
Basically defined, a citizen mapper is someone who uses available information and technology to enhance current maps for the benefit of our environment and culture. An example would be to add markers to an existing Google map of a river to show the locations of outfall pipes that may be sources pollution. Now the term has lent itself to “The Citizen Mapper Project,” a pilot program created by the Spokane and Kansas Riverkeepers. Ron Hall, who is a certified Google Earth modeler and trainer, is the technical advisor for the project, which not only develops maps for Spokane Riverkeeper and advances the mapping program of Kansas Riverkeeper, but also educates about mapping technology. Our hope is that a template program can be developed for use by other Waterkeeper organizations, as well as other community groups and schools.
Kansas Riverkeeper’s existing collection of maps provides a model and an inspiration for the new program.
“Maps have always been an important advocacy tool” says Riverkeeper Calwell, who has held that position since 2003, after serving as secretary and president of its parent organization, Friends of the Kaw—an alternate name for the Kansas. “Folks are more likely to take action if they know where a specific site or stretch of the river is being polluted or endangered.”
She explains that, between 2003 and 2007, Friends of the Kaw paid thousands of dollars, mostly acquired from grants, to build interactive maps on its website that were intended for specific uses such as location of access ramps, in-river dredges and historical sites.
“Around 2007 we figured out how to use and tailor Google maps for our purposes for free—that was the ‘aha’ moment.”
When they redesigned their website in 2010 they embedded many Google maps, and Annett figured out how to embed global-positioning-system photos into those maps, county by county. With the aid of Google’s Picasa Album software for organizing photos, visitors were able to take virtual tours down the river.
In addition to the countless possibilities offered by Google Maps and Google Earth, a Waterkeeper organization further from Kansas than the Land of Oz has applied a newer product for data input and sharing that is designed to be very compatible with mobile technology and social networks. China’s Qiantang River Waterkeeper uses Crowdmap, developed by Nairobi-based Ushahidi Inc., to display citizen reports of pollution on their website maps. This effort is at an early stage, but has already attracted an impressive amount of citizen participation.
“I got praise from our local environmental bureau when I reported our observations to them” Qiantang’s Hao Xin reported via email in late August. “Also, mass media, including newspapers and television, have reported a lot on the efforts of our mapping platform, especially after [we were accepted into] the United Nations Environment Program’s Eco-Peace Leadership Program during the summer.”
Hao and the developer of the Crowdmap platform have also been recruited to be supervisors in the Zhejiang Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau.
Hao stressed the educational value of the Qintang program: “Citizens may not realize there are such large numbers of pollution sites around us. This disclosure will hopefully stimulate their interest to participate in water protection.”
At the 2011 Waterkeeper Alliance Conference in Chicago, Ron Hall (via Skype), Cynthia Annett, Laura Calwell, Hao Xin, his associate, Chia-Rung Yang and I addressed a packed room on the benefits of mapping our watersheds and the relative ease of doing so with current and developing free technology. The presenters suggested ways for those attending to get started in creating watershed maps ranging from the basic to the advanced.
Ron Hall, a lynchpin holding together this collective effort, has worked with the Spokane Riverkeeper since its inception, and before that for the Spokane River Project of the Center for Justice. He has been advisor and mentor since my first day as Riverkeeper. When I arrived, he had begun his expert work, in collaboration with Tim Connor, the Center for Justice’s Communications Director, and first Spokane Riverkeeper Rick Eichsteadt, to develop a Google Earth plug-in application to highlight the features of and threats to the Spokane River. It has become an extensive resource with hundreds of pieces of media, links, data and narrative.
“Creating the maps has been a personal journey of education and awareness about the Spokane River, the issues surrounding its health and future, the people that love the river, and the public who need to know more about it,” Ron says. “Watching people use and critique the maps had made me aware that they can be powerful tools for both education and awareness. They can tell a story even when the Riverkeeper is not there to explain it. ”
Besides being a powerful educational and outreach tool, citizen mapping is a means of enforcement. And, as technology continues to evolve, applying it will continue to become easier. I’m often reminded by Ron Hall that Google Earth is the fifth most popular web-browser in the world, which tells us that if we want to place our information and reveal our vision where people are looking, we need to do so on Google Earth. The mapping world is where Waterkeepers need to be.
Invoking the proverb “a long journey begins with a single step,” Ron offers a little advice to those hoping to get started: “Use GPS units to collect data in mass. Use Google Earth/Google Maps to generate maps on your desktop. Look for existing geographic-information-system data from government, corporate, non-profit and educational sources. Use Google Map Maker.”
Laura Calwell recommends that Keepers “look for a trustworthy, techie volunteer who enjoys and has the time to fiddle around with this type of technology. I really only have very basic skills when it comes to web sites but I have learned how to make and manipulate simple Google maps – if I can do it, almost anyone can.”
That said, I’ll add, speaking for all of the citizen mappers out there, that, although there is no substitute for viewing a river or lake or bay in person, we are fortunate to have a great alternative. I encourage all Keepers and all citizens interested in clean water and healthy communities to use the available and improving technology to show the world what we care for and what needs to be done.
Reprinted with permission from Waterkeeper Magazine. To read the winter issue of the Waterkeeper Magazine, click here.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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