Journey of a Citizen Scientist: Finding Meaningful & Helpful Interactions with Nature

Posted on April 26, 2023 at 6:00 am

By Savannah Stewart

For the past few years, I’ve been working on connecting more with my environment—not just in a meditative sense, although I have been doing that as well. I’ve been focusing on doing things that are impactful to our community and that get me outside more.

A couple years ago, I stumbled across a Spokane Riverkeeper clean up event. They needed volunteers to pick up garbage along the banks of the Spokane River. So, I signed up with some friends and we keep signing up every year!

Some things that we have found while doing river clean ups include:

  • Large pieces of metal (seriously LARGE)
  • A metal chair
  • Loads of fishing wire
  • Clothes and shoes
  • Plastic bags, cups, and wrappers
  • So many cigarettes

Since the ban of plastic bags at grocery and retail stores, I’ve noticed a huge decrease in the number of bags in and along the river. So even though it can be a pain to bring your own bags or buy reusable ones, it has made a huge difference in the plastic bag litter we are seeing.

Once you do one event, it’s very hard not to notice all the litter when you’re out and about. I have my own set of garbage bags and trash picker-uppers (aka pole grabbers) so I can make places better than when I arrived.

On the Spokane Riverkeeper event calendar, you can sign up for the location and date option that works best for you, and then help pick up garbage with the provided supplies, trash pole grabbers, and big, durable bags.

The amount of time is usually two hours, there are lots of volunteers there to help, and it is free to participate.

There is something so satisfying when you see all the garbage that is no longer in our river. Last year, with the help of 2,200 volunteers, Spokane Riverkeeper picked up a total of 27,535 pounds of litter. That’s nearly 14 tons of garbage. Wow!

Side note: I implore you to please throw away your garbage and waste into proper containers. Not only is it illegal to throw garbage out of your car window, but when you do so, you are also harming nature, our community, and by extension yourself and those around you.

Citizen Science Programs

Something else the Riverkeeper is facilitating are citizen science (aka community science) opportunities. Citizen or community science is “scientific research, data collection, etc., that involves the participation of nonscientists.”

Basically, anyone can be a citizen scientist! And community science projects are a group effort, with everyone playing a role.

Last year, my friends and I participated in a community science project when we went to People’s Park and collected crawfish for mercury testing. This was only slightly terrifying since I avoid anything with pinchers. But I now know how to find, and avoid, crawfish in the Spokane River!

This year’s community science project involves taking water samples and readings for water turbidity—cloudiness caused by suspended matter—in Hangman Creek and the Spokane River. After getting some training, there is a calendar for signing up, and I was able to choose some days to do the sampling.

Once you pick a day, you have that whole day to do the sampling. There’s no time crunch, which is greatly appreciated. We got our supplies from a cooler in the designated location and got to sampling.

The supplies included:

  • A clipboard and sample sheet to fill out
  • A plastic water bottle attached to some rope and a crank-pulley mechanism
  • A graduated cylinder that measures the pollution level in centimeters
  • Some bags to collect water samples

We drove around and took samples at four different locations: by the TJ Meenach Bridge, by the Riverside Cemetery (near the convergence of Hangman Creek and the Spokane River), by the Sandifer Bridge, and off the 11th Street Bridge in Vinegar Flats. The last sample was the most fun because it involved throwing the water bottle off the bridge to fill with water and then reeling it back up.

When we were finished, we went to a specific location on the Centennial Trail and took a picture of the Hangman Creek convergence into the Spokane River. On days with high levels of rain or snow melt, you can actually see the brown sediment-filled water meet the crisp water of the Spokane River. It’s yucky.

The reason we collected this specific data is so that Spokane Riverkeeper and Spokane Falls Trout Unlimited (another local nonprofit) can get numbers on the amount and intensity of pollution from Hangman Creek into the Spokane River. With these numbers, we can work towards policies aimed at helping clean up Hangman Creek.

If you are interested in ways to help with this, check out the Spokane Riverkeeper and Spokane Falls Trout Unlimited websites about this project.

Note on Creek Name

If you are curious as to why I am referring to Hangman Creek by this name and not calling it Latah Creek, it is because that is the name that local tribes would prefer.

The name comes from the hanging of members of the Palouse Tribe including Chief Qualchan by George Wright in 1858. Local tribes worry that calling it Latah Creek erases the history of what happened. Spokane Riverkeeper works closely with local tribes, including the Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, in their conservation of local waterways.

More About Spokane Riverkeeper

As guardians and advocates for the Spokane River and its watershed, “The mission of the Spokane Riverkeeper is to protect the river’s ecological health, vibrancy, and aesthetic integrity, as well as the healthy connections that communities have to the river now and into the future.”

I encourage you to check out the Spokane Riverkeeper website along with the other “keepers” at the bottom of their home page and subscribe to their newsletter.

Related Library Materials

Our digital book collection on OverDrive has booklists all about the outdoors, ways to experience nature, and ideas for being a citizen scientist:

SCLD also has the Inland Northwest Collection dedicated to local authors and topics relevant to our community. Check it out next time you stop into your library!

Savannah Stewart

Savannah Stewart is the Communication Associate with Spokane County Library District. She enjoys spending her time reading, hiking, traveling, and eating delicious food, including the homemade pizza her partner makes. To relax, she meditates, practices yoga, and snuggles with her kitty Zelda.

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