My childhood was spent on Kodiak Island, Alaska and I spent countless hours poking starfish and collecting creatures from tidal pools. After nearly a decade of living away from the ocean, I recently moved to a coastal city. Despite living less than half of a mile from the bay, myself and many other city residents usually only gaze at the waters. Living in a highly urbanized city, and also a historic working harbor, lack of direct access to the water might be safer for health reasons. But urban runoff, bacteria, and trash are issues some coastal residents are addressing through citizen science programs that help to ensure waters are safe for human recreation and plant and animal habitation, as well as providing local decision makers with the necessary scientific data to make informed policies to help clean up our water sources.

One such citizen science program, the Surfrider Foundation’s Blue Water Task Force, focuses on marine conservation and outreach. Earlier this month, the Blue Water Task Force released its 2013 Annual Report with data compiled by hundreds of national volunteers. The program began over twenty years ago and has grown to twenty-eight testing labs across the country, from the West Coast to Rhode Island, New York, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, and several more. Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) volunteers serve two very vital needs: complimenting, or filling in, data from government agencies, and educating and motivating local residents about water quality issues. Through sampling and lab testing, as well as outreach efforts, volunteers are engaged in local decision making as well as becoming an informed advocate for progressive policies. Last year, citizen scientists performed 3,271 water tests, a steady increase from previous years.

Thanks to BWTF volunteers, data trends show that more than half of collected samples met national health standards, and that there was even a modest decline in high levels of bacteria across the national testing sites. With strong data, local residents are able to identify problem areas unique to their watershed or ocean and begin to craft community-wide solutions. Some of the educational and outreach programs employed by local BWTF chapters include Know Your H20, a freshwater management program focused on preventing polluted runoff into oceans; promoting the Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Gardens program that utilizes conservation, permeability, and water retention principles; and leading community events such as neighborhood walks and waterway cleanup days.

“Surfrider’s diverse membership is motivated by their common love for the ocean and a strong desire to protect our beaches for everyone’s enjoyment. The BWTF provides a vehicle for volunteers to participate in science and to motivate coastal communities to take action to clean up our watersheds and improve the water quality at our beaches.” (2013 Annual Report 3)

And the passion only seems to be growing, as more and more concerned citizens find hands-on ways to connect with oceans and waterways and seek solutions for pressing environmental problems facing them. Two years ago a local chapter of the BWTF was revived in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and they now monitor four testing sites in the city, with particular focus on winter months when the city doesn’t conduct water quality monitoring. This chapter focuses on several issues that face the Virginia Beach community, such as working with the local civic league and the city to ensure and plan for better beach access, crafting a legislative campaign to allow Virginian cities to create ordinances banning smoking on beaches, and their Rise Above Plastics campaign that raises awareness of the impact plastics have on the marine ecosystem throughout the Hampton Roads region. The Virginia Beach BWTF chapter also encourages the community to get out onto the beach by hosting a monthly beach cleanup at various beaches throughout the city.

I’m grateful to have the ability to live by the water once more, even if contact with the water is currently minimal. The world’s oceans are powerful and beautiful places. Whether we live inland, or on a coastal city, all waters eventually find their way to the sea. Let’s start celebrating our blue gems, be they salt or freshwater. Whether you start the journey as a concerned parent, a passionate surfer, or just a curious citizen, citizen science programs are a great way to start protecting our marine ecosystems, while ultimately enabling people to reconnect with the wonders that live under the sea. Hopefully, as more citizens start to reconnect with the waters around them, interest in the nature of the ocean will become more than just a trip to the beach.


Dias, Maria. Blue Water Task Force 2013 Annual Report.

Surfrider Foundation Virginia Beach Chapter.

Post by Amanda Beck