BUFFALO, N.Y. — A project that asks hikers, fishermen,
birdwatchers, school kids and nature-lovers of all stripes to
monitor stream levels is expanding from its home base in Western
New York to three new states: Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.
started in 2011 by Chris Lowry, PhD, a University at Buffalo
assistant professor of geology. He came up with the idea after
reading about a California researcher who used crowdsourcing to
“When I heard that this guy was actually getting people to
send him info on roadkill, I thought there's no reason I couldn't
get people to send me info on how much water is flowing through
streams,” Lowry said in 2011 shortly after launching
The project began with nine pilot locations in Western New
Each site is simple, consisting of a giant measuring staff and a
sign explaining how passersby can contribute to CrowdHydrology by
texting water levels and stream locations (identified by a station
number) to researchers.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is supporting
CrowdHydrology’s expansion, giving Lowry and colleagues a
grant to install stream gauges at about 10 additional sites in New
York State; 20 apiece in Michigan and Wisconsin; and three in
The project will help researchers track and understand the flow
of water through a broad region, while engaging the public in
science that matters in their daily lives. Each of the new
CrowdHydrology sites sits atop a glacial aquifer that provides much
of the drinking water for Northern states.
This type of data collection is particularly interesting with
tight budgets forcing USGS to discontinue the recording of water
levels at many streams the agency has monitored for decades.
CrowdHydrology isn't meant to replace the USGS stream gauges,
which typically take readings at 15-minute intervals and capture
more data than just water levels. But in a time of declining
funding, the crowdsourcing project could serve as a model for
communities looking for a cost-effective method for maintaining
some information on local waterways.
“The USGS has a long history of measuring stream stages,
but the equipment they use is very expensive. We need to find
cheaper ways to do the same jobs we did in the past, and
CrowdHydrology is one way to do this,” said Lowry, who is
partnering with USGS research hydrologist Michael Fienen on the
“The CrowdHydrology project is starting to fill in data
gaps where we can’t collect measurements as often as we would
like. The fact that any passerby can contribute to the science is
probably the greatest benefit,” said Fienen, who works in the
USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center.
Future plans for CrowdHydrology include:
- Completing the current expansion. Sites are up and
running in all four project states, but new installations will
continue through the end of June.
- Designing a smartphone app that geolocates users. People
sometimes forget to include their stream station location when they
text CrowdHydrology. An app with geolocation abilities could do
- Creating a do-it-yourself kit. The dream is to build a
mail-order kit containing all the equipment needed for
CrowdHydrology, so that K-12 teachers can install stream gauges on
their own for use in class projects.
Whenever a citizen scientist texts CrowdHydrology, a computer
program called Social.Water that Lowry and Fienen designed feeds
the data to the project website, http://crowdhydrology.org,
where anyone can view the information.
As CrowdHydrology grows, researchers are targeting locations
like nature centers — places where visitors are already
thinking about conservation, or where a staff member or other
stakeholder is primed to make regular measurements.
At CrowdHydrology’s nine New York pilot sites, Lowry found
that high foot traffic didn’t guarantee success. Gauges at
popular trout-fishing spots received little data – a
“We went with the assumption that passive crowdsourcing
would be fine, but that didn’t work,” Lowry said.
What did work was a gauge he hammered into a pond at Beaver
Meadow, a Buffalo Audubon Society nature preserve in Western New
Visitors there texted CrowdHydrology more than 100 times between
May and November 2011, according to a 2012 paper by Lowry and
Fienen in the journal Ground Water. The crowdsourced measurements
were fairly accurate, roughly mirroring data from a mechanical
gauge that the researchers installed for the purpose of
double-checking for one month. Since November 2011, about 200 new
texts have arrived from Beaver Meadow, Fienen said.
The numbers captured an unexpected phenomenon: beavers returning
to dam up the pond after an absence of many years. The data showed
water levels rising
steadily in the first months of 2012 after the beavers’
arrival, then dipping in November 2012 as the remnants of Hurricane
Sandy ruined their dam, then reversing again as the animals made
repairs, Lowry and Fienen said.