Is the River Cherwell a Drinkable River?

By Isabel Jorgensen, WSPM student 2019-20

Citizen science is becoming increasingly popular, particularly for data collection. It is able to improve knowledge and stimulate great public participation and action. However, questions about data quality and accessibility linger. One such example is  Drinkable Rivers, an international organisation based in the Netherlands that aims to increase engagement with water-related issues universally. Drinkable Rivers has the specific goal of making all rivers drinkable again for the benefit of humans, biodiversity, and natural resources more broadly. In this context, the Water Science, Policy, and Management (WSPM) MSc. students set out on a rainy Thursday afternoon in October to discover if the River Cherwell was, indeed, drinkable.

[FIGURE 1] Lukas Larsson and Isabel Jorgensen assessing clarity in the River Cherwell using a Secchi disk. Source: Abigail McGuckin

When we reached our sampling sites near Parson’s Pleasure in University Parks we divided into sub groups. Each group went to a different site in the same general area and evaluated location, surroundings, smell, colour, E.coli, pH, phosphate, TSS, and clarity. The sampling had varying success, partly due to the poor weather conditions, technical difficulties and equipment failures. As a result, the data quality was mixed and findings more reflective of the rainwater due to sample contamination. Nevertheless, these difficulties generated valuable feedback for iterative development of the monitoring methods, and will hopefully improve the process and data quality of future monitoring efforts.  Suggestions ranged from laminating the instruction manual, including multiple pH strips and sealing them, providing a briefing on sampling protocol prior to entering the field, and allowing more specific and spatially extensive observations about the riparian zone. That being said, it was encouraging and satisfying to see the data displayed on the simple and elegant user interface.

Ultimately, whilst Drinkable Rivers is an intriguing initiative to enhance citizen engagement with water science and gather data en masse, it currently suffers from clear (although easily resolved) data quality and sampling issues. If these issues are addressed through proven actions like volunteer training and iterative revision of the methodology, the project is likely to be highly effective at gathering data and engaging local communities, and we may then know if the River Cherwell is drinkable.


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