Citizen scientists tap into Elkhorn River

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By Michael Wunder, News Editor

An experiment testing the Elkhorn River watershed that recruited ‘citizen scientists’ – volunteers throughout the river basin – had ‘fantastic’ feedback, said Alan Kolok, a biology professor at UNO who organized the project.

The experiment was the direct result of two conceptual papers written by Kolok and his colleagues regarding their new approach to ecological monitoring.

“[There was a] great turnout and a very rapid response,” Kolok said.   “A 60 percent return in 48 hours is unprecedented.  We have definitely tapped into something.”

Given the positive feedback, Kolok said this might become an annual project.

“The intention is for this to become an annual event,” he said.  “Though not necessarily on the same date or done in exactly the same way.”

Kolok and other members of the UNO Biology Department gave out approximately 180 testing strips to volunteers April 23.  The volunteers then tested the Elkhorn River for atrazine, the second most widely used broad leaf herbicide in the U.S.

So far, 100 strips have been returned.  Out of those, only two tested positive for the chemical.

“As of today, atrazine is not in the watershed,” Kolok said.

However, if the experiment were repeated in May, results could differ.  Independent farmers have no set date for applying the pesticide, and they typically wait for drier weather, Kolok said.  Given the cold, rainy weather recently, farmers probably haven’t found it necessary to spray the chemical.

“Drier weather will probably correspond with greater rates of application,” Kolok said.

Increased rates of application could mean a significant atrazine, Kolok said.  “The effect of atrazine on humans, wildlife and ecosystems is extremely controversial.”

In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency determined the risk of atrazine-induced cancer in human beings to be unlikely.  Other effects of the chemical, though, are still being assessed.

A 2008 study by the University of California San Francisco found that atrazine, when imbibed, altered hormonal signaling in human cells by increasing activity in genes associated with abnormal birth weight.

The chemical’s effect on wildlife may also be detrimental.  In the past decade, there have been numerous reports of atrazine causing male frogs and other amphibians to develop female genatalia.

“Those results are contested,” Kolok said.  “And the toxicity of atrazine is hotly debated.”

An intensive monitoring program of atrazine residues in approximately 100 community water systems is ongoing, according to the EPA website.  A majority of these systems are located in the Midwest.

The idea for a volunteer-run study sprang from a meeting between Kolok and some colleagues in Vail, Colo., three years ago, in which the group discussed ways to make ecological monitoring cheaper, easier and faster.

“The traditional approach would involve small groups of highly trained scientists, small sample sizes, lots of analytical equipment and a long turn-around time,” Kolok said.  “Our approach involves citizen scientists, very large sample sizes, easy to use equipment and an extremely short turn-around time.”

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