Planning a Water Testing Program

Blue Water Task Force

In order to set up a successful water-testing program, there are a number of things you should consider first and plan with your chapter.

1. Why do you want to test the water? What are you concerned about?

It is important to have a clear objective for your water-testing program before you begin. A clear objective or defined purpose will help you design a water testing program to meet your chapter’s unique interests and needs. All the rest of the details can then follow.

Does your chapter suspect a pollution problem at a particular beach? Are there beaches in your area that are not being tested by the authorities? Are there seasonal gaps? Are you looking for a program to activate your membership or to reach out to youth? Perhaps you have a data need for an ongoing campaign.

FAQ #3 describes the purposes and objectives of different BWTF chapter programs. There is also a really good discussion of sources of beach pollution in this Chapter Guide to Clean Water or find location specific information by pulling up your state chapter and clicking on water quality in the Surfrider Foundation’s “State of the Beach Report”.


2. Who else is testing your beaches?

Before you choose what beaches you want to sample, or if additional testing is even necessary, you should find out who is monitoring water quality in your area and which beaches they are sampling.

A good place to start is by looking at the “State of the Beach Report”. Within this report, you will find valuable information about existing water quality monitoring programs, as well as discussions of local water quality issues and useful state and local contacts for existing programs.

You can also search for other volunteer groups testing the water in your watershed in this EPA directory of volunteer monitoring groups.  It is important to determine who else is testing locally so you can determine the need for additional testing and identify potential partners.

3. Where & when should we sample?

Once you determine who is testing in your area, look for any gaps: either beaches that aren’t being sampled or perhaps months or seasons when no testing is being done at all. You also might want to test the water at the most popular surfing beaches or at beaches where you suspect or know there are sources of pollution nearby.

You can set up your monitoring plan to sample weekly, biweekly or monthly. You might want to sample throughout the year or just during the fall, winter & spring months when there might not be anyone else doing any monitoring in your area. How many beaches and how often you sample are going to largely depend on how much you are able to spend, how many volunteers you have and of course, the objective of your particular testing program.

4. How much money can my chapter afford to spend on this program?

Testing water costs money. The Blue Water Task Force uses IDEXX Enterolert/Quanti-tray Sealer methodology to measure enterococcus bacteria levels in water samples. This method is an EPA- approved method for sampling recreational waters and is easy for volunteers and students to learn and use competently.  Bacteria results are obtained after a 24 hour sample incubation period, but this method is somewhat expensive.

It costs about $7500 to get a BWTF lab set up with IDEXX equipment and enough supplies to process 100 samples. Ongoing costs once the initial, expendable supplies run out are approximately $10 per sample (See FAQ #7).  In some cases, used equipment might be available to lower the initial cost.

Does your chapter have funds to run this program already in the bank? Will you need to hold a fundraiser to raise the money or look for potential donors or other sources of funding? It is important to consider cost and develop a realistic funding plan when deciding whether to start up a BWTF program.  Cost and available chapter funds will also determine how many sites you are able to test and how often.

Contact Colleen Henn, chenn@surfrider.org for a complete list of laboratory equipment, supplies needed, and current pricing.

5. How many people in my chapter are interested in volunteering their time to collect and process water samples? Do we have one or two committed volunteers to coordinate the program?

In order to build a successful volunteer water testing program, you need to make sure that the work required does not exceed the capacity of the volunteers that you have to implement the program (see FAQ #8). For instance, you can’t monitor 30 beaches every week with 2 volunteers. When you design your sampling plan and decide on the number of beaches you want to monitor and the frequency of sampling, you need to consider the number of volunteers that you have, the amount of time they are able to volunteer each week (or month), and the distance your target beaches are from each other and from the lab.

This is also a good time to consider how you can recruit volunteers into the program and provide incentives to keep people motivated. Volunteer turn-over is often the biggest challenge faced by volunteer water testing programs.


6. Where will we set up our water-testing laboratory?

While the space requirement isn’t huge (see FAQ #10) you do need a place to store your equipment and supplies and process the water samples. A central location near the target beaches, that is easily accessible to volunteers for sample drop-off, works best. Samples need to be kept cool during transport and must be prepared within 6 hours of being collected.

Some chapters have formed partnerships with environmental labs, aquariums & other non-profits to host their lab space, but the lab equipment could also be set up at a private residence as well.


7. Do we have to worry about complicated Quality Control procedures?

The quality control requirements for this volunteer water-testing program are minimal and are directed at ensuring that the methodology is aseptic (without contamination). It is important to follow the BWTF procedures precisely each time you sample and perform lab work, but there is no reason for a volunteer laboratory to adopt complicated Quality Assurance Project Plans (QAPPs) that are required of labs whose data have regulatory and enforcement authority. For instance, a county department of health laboratory that runs samples so that decisions can be made to close or open beaches would have to follow strict QAPP procedures.

Besides following the sampling and lab instructions exactly, it is also recommended that chapter water testing programs run a blank control every time samples are processed and an occasional duplicate sample to check for precision and bias in their results.

8. What will we do with our data?

Before you start collecting water samples, you should determine what you are going to do with your data. There is an online database, accessible through the Surfrider Foundation’s website, where each chapter’s BWTF data can be stored and viewed. Surfrider’s IT department will build a data input page specifically for your chapter, showing your local beaches or other sample locations. For more information contact Colleen Henn, chenn@surfrider.org.

In addition to entering your data into this database, there are a host of different ways you can share your data and raise the visibility of your water testing program and your chapter in your community. Water quality data can be posted directly on your Chapter’s website and share easily via social media. You can prepare a brief water quality report to email to your chapter members and other interested parties, local newspapers, local government staff and officials, or surf shops.

Many chapters have started issuing annual reports to raise awareness of their results (see examples from Kauai and Eastern Long Island) and are giving community presentations or holding water quality workshops to increase the awareness of their program and local water quality issues with new audiences. Many student-based BWTF programs hold community events at the end of a school year or semester to present their findings and discuss local water quality issues. Some even make presentations before their city council.

You should also identify who you are going to bring your concerns to if your data make you suspect that there is a pollution problem at one of your testing sites. This could be the local department of health or environmental agency, city council or mayor. Read how many Surfrider chapters have used the findings from their water testing programs to bring awareness to a pollution problem and to motivate their local governments to investigate the sources of pollution and take steps towards remediation on Surfrider’s Coastal Blog.

9. How do we know if our program is successful?

It is always wise to take the time to step back from the routine of running your water-testing program to evaluate what is working well and what areas could be improved upon. If you plan this evaluation from the onset, then you will be more likely to make this effort. A good evaluation will include a review of your data and what trends can be identified.  Does it make sense to keep testing all the sites you initially picked, are there some that maybe should be dropped or added? Is there enough volunteer capacity to keep the same sampling schedule?  What can we do to attract more volunteers?

Ideally this evaluation would include a discussion with your volunteers and the chapter’s executive committee and would be presented at a chapter meeting to ensure that the water-testing program remains tied-in with the local chapter’s needs and interests.


10. Questions?
If you have any questions on anything you’ve read on this page or about starting up a water-testing program please contact Colleen Henn, Surfrider’s Clean Water Coordinator, at chenn@surfrider.org.

You may also find some useful tips in these volunteer water quality monitoring guides: 

Volunteer Bacteria Monitoring Program Guide, Chatahoochee Riverkeeper Neighborhood Water Watch

Safe Waters, Healthy Waters, A Guide for Citizen Groups on Bacteria Monitoring in Local Waterways, Center for Watershed Protection