Daniel Reategui and Citizen Science

Over the years, science has changed from the experiments of curious tinkerers in their home-based labs and in isolated field sites to include the full-time work of large teams in million-dollar facilities and extensive field station activities. This transition to Big Science has brought impressive innovations, but it also makes science more distant from people’s everyday lives and experiences, sometimes even ignoring important local knowledge. But a new wave of scientists is trying to rebuild that connection by involving residents in conducting scientific research. In this column, Daniel Reategui explains how.

Reategui is a senior at Macon Early College who interned with the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program during the summer of 2013, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. The internship helped him advance toward a career in bio- engineering, but perhaps more importantly it helped refine a new tool that allows citizens to make direct contributions to science by monitoring stream health throughout their community. Here’s how Reategui describes his project.

I showed up on the first day a bit nervous, but mostly excited to work alongside scientists and help conduct different types of ecological studies. As a summer intern, I would aid in assessing the health of local streams using a tool called saSVAP. This study was being conducted by Jeremy Sullivan, a PhD student working in Dr. Cathy Pringle’s stream ecology lab at the University of Georgia.

SaSVAP stands for Southern Appalachian Stream Visual Assessment Protocol—it’s a tool that allows anyone, including those with no scientific background, to evaluate the condition of their own streams. By simply observing the stream’s characteristics, you can calculate a score between 1 and 4. For example, to rate a stream’s habitat health, a score of 4 would be given if a stream had more than 8 different kinds of habitats, such as pools and riffles, while a score of 1 would be given to a stream that displayed only one or no habitats. This type of quick, easy assessment can serve land managers, landowners, and scientists alike.

It was my job to be the “beta tester” for saSVAP. Nearly every day, I ventured out to different streams throughout Macon County to test how saSVAP worked. It was cool to be in a different creek each day, from cold mountain streams such as Coweeta Creek to larger, warmer rivers such as the Little Tennessee.

Over the course of the summer, I worked with Brian McGann (an undergraduate intern from the University of Georgia who was studying tree cover around streams) and Dr. Bill McLarney (an aquatic biologists with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee). Bill has been monitoring fish populations in the upper Little Tennessee watershed for 24 years. By probing streams with an electric fish shocker, netting the stunned fish, and quickly identifying and releasing the fish back to the water, we were able to get a rating of the biological health of the streams, known as the Index of Biotic Integrity. We used this to test whether the saSVAP was accurate, and it was. My saSVAP scores correlated strongly with our data on fish populations, which suggests that saSVAP is a reliable indicator of stream health.

Our work also showed that stream health doesn’t just depend on commonly acknowledged threats like pollution and sediment runoff. It’s also affected by basic physical characteristics like habitat diversity and streamside vegetation. One of the things that struck me was how important trees are in maintaining stream health—in every case, streams that had even a modest strip of mature trees, shrubs, and vegetation that was allowed to grow wild had higher saSVAP scores, underscoring the importance of keeping the vegetation next to streams intact.

Reategui emphasized how great this internship experience was for him—and he even decided to continue it through the school year—but we want to stress that it was also great for science. Students like Reategui and citizens who use saSVAP make unique contributions to science. They help scientists monitor conditions in more places and at more times, but more importantly they bring a special type of environmental knowledge to their work, based on their personal and professional interactions with the land and their concern for it. By reconnecting Big Science to this local knowledge and concern, we hope to produce better science that lays the groundwork for better environmental stewardship. Visit the CLP web site to get more information about how you can contribute to citizen science efforts in Western North Carolina.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at cwtlistn@uga.edu or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: Coweeta Listening Project. "Daniel Reategui and the Coweeta Listening Project Writing Collective." The Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B4. November 8, 2013.