New App Allows Citizen Scientists to Create Inventory of Watercourse Crossings

by Ann Sullivan

Picture the vast Alberta wilderness – seemingly endless hectares of rolling plains, gentle foothills and steep mountains, each area braided by creeks, streams and rivers that change with the seasons and the years. Now picture the thousands of natural and built crossings: the bridges, culverts and fords that allow access to both sides of a waterway. What if you were take inventory of all the watercourse crossings in Alberta? It’s an ambitious project, but one that the provincial government has set in motion with the creation of a user-friendly app.

If all goes according to plan, the Alberta Watercourse Crossing Inventory (ABWCI) app, developed by Alberta Environment and Parks and launched in February 2020, will eventually document all stream crossings in Alberta. The information gathered will help further the goals of the province’s Watercourse Crossing Program (WCP), which aims to address threats to fish survival from poorly maintained and constructed crossings.

The beauty of the ABWCI app, according to Lesley Peterson, an Alberta provincial biologist with Trout Unlimited Canada, is that it’s accessible and simple to use. “This is something that can be used by anybody on any crossing,” Peterson said. “There’s just so many roads and trails out there,” she added. “Incorporating a citizen scientist component is such a good idea.” 

Deteriorating watercourse crossings can hurt fish populations in several ways: by fragmenting their habitat and allowing sediment to flow into the water. Fragmentation cuts off the ability of fish to migrate to spawning grounds, find food and seek shelter from predators. Sedimentation, caused by runoff from bridges, roads and poorly maintained crossings, can damage or destroy habitat.

ABWCCI MacLean creekFour species of fish are in decline in Alberta, two of which are found in the Elbow River watershed: Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout. Data gathered through the new app would help the provincial government in protecting those threatened species. According to an information sheet from the GOA, data will be used “to manage for the cumulative effects of stream crossings and help to prioritize and coordinate remediation efforts across watersheds.”

Caitlin Tomaszewski, a professional biologist with the Foothills Research Institute, said the Alberta government currently receives “a smattering of data” from various sources: inspectors, watershed stewardship organizations, recreation groups and government, each of which has its own priorities and perspectives. Alberta Environment and Parks recognized that “we need to get all of the data in one place and we need to get it in one place that everyone has access to,” Tomaszewski said.

The ABWCI app allows anyone with a cell phone or tablet to collect data for either a short- or long-form survey. There is no need for a cellular connection at the site of the crossing. The short form takes minutes to complete and can be used to answer basic yet crucial questions: Can fish move past the crossing? Is there dirt in the water? Can people safely use the crossing? The long form is more likely to be used by trained professionals.

Cal Hill, president of the Ghost Watershed Alliance Society (GWAS), received training on the ABWCI app and used it several times over the summer. “It’s a super good tool because it’s very simple to use,” Hill said. The best thing about the app, he added, is that it helps citizen scientists “calibrate” their thinking by “standardizing people’s thinking about what’s a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ crossing.” Hill hopes to hike the Ghost watershed with other GWAS members to survey crossings together. “It’s a good excuse to get out in the field,” he said.

As of November 1, 2020, Tomaszewski said, more than 1,000 surveys had been completed, most of them by several key players: stewardships groups such as the Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) and GWAS, Trout Unlimited Canada, Alberta Transportation and Matrix Consulting. 

The data provides a “snapshot in time,” Tomaszewski said, that will give decision makers a good sense of the areas most in need of remediation. She would like stewardship groups to have a say in how and where money is spent to improve crossings. “The stewardships groups are the ones that know the watersheds the best,” she said, adding that their members are often out on the land and have the best interests of a healthy watershed at heart.

ABWCCI silvester creekLike so many things this year, plans for the ABWCI app were derailed by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Tomaszewski has high hopes for its future use. The next version of the app will be ready to roll out in spring 2021. She’d like to promote it among outdoor enthusiasts like hiking groups, ATV clubs and stewardship groups. The ERWP, for one, plans to coordinate efforts with its membership in training and using the app.

Next summer’s plan is to integrate a system to track remediation work. At present, each stewardship group or organization is responsible for keeping track of and monitoring their own remediated sites, Tomaszewski said. Members of the same group can access data about crossings, which gives them a better idea of what’s out there and which crossings might require remediation.

Eventually, Tomaszewski would like to partner with third-party groups to offer incentives for data-gathering. This would mean possibly assigning points to each crossing and then incentivizing the points. As she said in an email, “This feature would also hopefully inspire citizen scientists to want to ‘go for the hard-to-get’ ones.”

Future iterations of the ABWCI app will hopefully also integrate a map feature that shows assessed crossings and crossings that still need to be surveyed.

“It could be a really powerful tool,” Tomaszewski said.

Download the Alberta Watercourse Crossing Inventory app from Google Play or the App Store. For tutorials on both the long- and short-form surveys, click here.


Access a pdf version of this article by clicking here  pdf Newsletter feature article-December 2020 (1.05 MB)

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