For a quarter of a century, dedicated citizen volunteers in the Foley area have been actively involved in collecting thousands of water samples, offering crucial water quality insights for South …
For a quarter of a century, dedicated citizen volunteers in the Foley area have been actively involved in collecting thousands of water samples, offering crucial water quality insights for South Baldwin County and the state of Alabama. Organized under the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch initiative, these volunteers have played a pivotal role in monitoring over 80 sites around Wolf Bay and various waterways since the program's inception in 1998.
Jackie McGonigal, a program coordinator and the Orange Beach Wind and Water Learning Center coordinator, highlighted the significance of the data gathered by these diligent volunteers. Speaking at a recent Watershed Watch meeting, McGonigal emphasized that the extensive dataset accumulated over the years serves as a vital baseline. This wealth of information allows scientists to track changes and make informed decisions as the region undergoes development.
“Our watershed actually has a really, really great set of baseline data because we have been in existence for almost 25 years,” McGonigal said. “This is really important because that set of data helps inform a lot of management decisions. It also has allowed us to pursue water body classifications and this data has been used not only by engineering firms to help form watershed management plans, but it's also been used for management decisions at city levels, county and even state levels.”
The Wolf Bay Watershed Watch, boasting around 125 volunteers since 1998, has actively collected data at more than 80 sites. In the last two years alone, 27 monitors were active in 24 sites, contributing a total of 9,555 records – the second-highest in the state of Alabama.
McGonigal emphasized the community engagement aspect of the program, allowing residents to actively participate in monitoring the water quality in their surroundings. Using specially designed kits, volunteers measure various factors in local streams.
“We measure temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, turbidity and then some people are monitoring for nutrients, phosphate and nitrate specifically,” McGonigal said. “Why is this important? The big question that we want to know about our water bodies that we're on. Are they improving? Are they kind of holding steady or are they getting worse?”
To answer this, parameters such as dissolved oxygen and bacteria levels, particularly Escherichia coli (E. coli), are closely monitored.
While some streams have experienced drops in oxygen levels at times, most areas align with the state standards set by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
“It (E. coli) naturally comes from wildlife,” she said, “It comes unnaturally from sewage systems. So if there's a faulty septic tank or if we have sewer overflows, which sometimes we see during these major rainfall events, that can be a route for E. coli to get into the water body.”
According to McGonigal, E. coli levels are measured in colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water. The Wolf Bay monitoring system, part of the state network established by the Alabama Water Watch, adheres to standards, with efforts underway to expand volunteer monitoring in the South Baldwin area.
“Their goal is to have a citizen monitor on every single water body in Alabama,” McGonigal said. “That's a really tall order. Has anyone ever looked at a topographic map of the entire state? We're covered in water. We're one of the largest watershed systems in the country.”
McGonigal encouraged those interested in the program to explore more information on the organization's website at wolfbaywatershedwatch.org/. Per McGonigal, the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch is working towards adding more volunteers to monitor additional site sin teh South Baldwin area.