For this Swim Guide Spotlight, we reached out to Katy Alambo, Ottawa Riverkeeper’s biologist. To learn more about their watershed health assessment and monitoring initiative.
Ottawa Riverkeeper affiliate profile
Where: West Virginia, USA
Number of regions: 16
Number of sites: 374
Sampling season: June – August
Sampling frequency: Varies
Swim Guide Affiliate since: 2012
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Or: Hello Katy, thank you for meeting with me today. Would you mind introducing yourself and telling our readers about your role at Ottawa Riverkeeper?
Katy: Sure, no problem! My name is Katy Alambo, and I am the biologist at Ottawa Riverkeeper, and have been with the organization for just over three years. My background is in freshwater biology and ecology, with a specific focus on toxic algal blooms. I moved to the Ottawa area in 2014 to pursue my master’s degree, and soon after moving here, I learned about Ottawa Riverkeeper and knew that I wanted to get involved with them.
I jokingly say that I bullied my way into the organization. I kept in touch with them after I graduated and always kept my eye on job postings. Whenever they had a position open, I made sure to apply and get my name in there. And it all paid off! I came onto the team, originally to launch the Youth Water Leaders Program, in 2019.
Now in my position as Biologist, I work with our community-based monitoring volunteers and our Riverwatch volunteers. We do a lot of water quality monitoring and observation based monitoring, including tracking algal blooms and invasive species. I guess you could say I dip my toes into all the biology-related things we do at Ottawa Riverkeeper!
Or: So you knew you were going to work for Ottawa Riverkeeper. It just took them some time to understand that. Your work is really diverse. I looked at your website and saw the graphics of the interconnectedness of a watershed. It looked super complicated and confusing. Could you tell me a bit about your watershed assessment work?
Katy: I think you are referring to our website’s Watershed Health Assessment and Monitoring page. For this work we identified fourteen indicators that make up the backbone of the Watershed Health Assessment and Monitoring project. The project kicked off in 2019 with the publication of our Assessing the Health of the Ottawa River Watershed, Phase One report. For this report we worked with several researchers, universities, Algonquin communities, and other stakeholders, to identify issues throughout the watershed and developed projects to gather data so that we can track and infer information about the health of the watershed.
To name a few, some of these fourteen indicators include things like: algal blooms, invasive species, total phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, fish diversity and more. The map you saw shows the link between these indicators. They are each interrelated with each other. We gather information on all of them through a mix of research and community based monitoring projects.
I think what makes our work unique is the inclusion of community-based monitoring. Some of our indicators are collected by volunteer-run programs that help fill data gaps.
Or: That is such a monumental task! You are collecting an enormous amount of data! If things are interconnected, how do you know where to intervene to create the change you want to see in the watershed?
Katy: That’s partly why we started this project in the first place and highlights a problem that is not unique to our watershed. Many watersheds just do not have the baseline information on their overall health. In the Ottawa River watershed, there haven’t been many large scale studies done to gather this information and these many data gaps prohibit us from creating baseline assumptions. This makes it challenging to measure any interventions or even make decisions about the type of interventions to make.
We see that come into effect in some of people’s misconceptions about the water, especially in the city of Ottawa when it comes to water quality. Many people who have lived here for a long time have memories of poor water quality. But through the testing we’ve done at beaches throughout the watershed in support of our Swim Guide program, we find that the water conditions in the river are generally quite good.
We would like to encourage people to experience the water. Part of our goal in collaborating with so many communities is to help them learn about the health of the water. We say, “It takes a watershed to protect a river.”
Or: That is beautiful. I love that saying. So you are collecting so much data. Where do you put it all? Does the public get to see it?
Katy: Yes, data sharing is super important to us! One of the central parts of our watershed health assessment is developing ways to share this information with the watershed community. One of the ways we do that is through our open data portal. All the data we collect is uploaded to our portal. We also share open data from other groups and organizations doing similar work in the watershed.
The Ottawa River forms the border between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, so we work with groups on both sides and try to foster collaboration between us all. So many people are working to protect the health of the river and our open data portal is there for everyone!
Or: Well done for keeping your data in an open data format. It is essential in making it easier for people to use this data.
As we are two Canadians talking, we have to talk about the weather. I noticed on your map that one of your icons is a drop of water that is half a snowflake. Could you speak to what it means for a watershed to go through the cycles of freezing?
Katy: Yes, one of our indicators is ice on / ice off. We have volunteers notify us when they first see ice conditions forming at the beginning of winter and when the ice begins to disappear in the spring. Freezing is a significant feature of our river, but we do not have much data on how it impacts the watershed. Overall, winter is not the time when many people are doing research in the field.
In general, river ice formation is known to influence nutrient levels in the river as well as the behaviour of different species. Some fish species use the formation of ice as a trigger to complete different life processes. What we are seeing is a change in the freezing cycle. The river might stay frozen for a shorter time or go into a freeze and thaw back and forth. All of these changes can play a significant role in the watershed’s overall health.
Or: That is very true. There is a lot more we should monitor for, even when it’s cold out. On a more personal note, what is your favourite indicator to test for?
Katy: I am a bit biased because of my background. I have a place in my heart for algae. I love to talk about them! This time of the year especially, I get a lot of questions about them. I get to share with the public more information about algae. They are often overlooked, but I get excited when we collect samples and put them under the microscope. I feel like I am reliving my grad school days.
Or: That is so great. A bit of a throwback for you. What is something you wish people living on the Ottawa River would know about the river?
Katy: When people think of Ottawa, they think of the city. It has a reputation for being boring. But the Ottawa River is the complete opposite of that. There is so much cool stuff to do on the river. It has white water rapids if you are into rafting or kayaking. Closer to the city, there are smaller rapids, and people go surfing on these smaller rapids. There is a whole river surfing community! Off the river, but still in the watershed are the Bonnechere Caves with ancient ordovician fossils. Super cool and exciting things!
Or: I had no idea the Ottawa River has all these things! That’s amazing! I usually wrap up the interview by asking what your river’s secret is, and I feel like you shared all of these already.
Katy: I have one more thing to tell you about the river. We recently collaborated with the Canadian Museum of Nature and worked with freshwater molluscs expert André Martel. We were investigating an endangered species of freshwater mollusc called Hickorynut. These molluscs live on sand dunes at the bottom of the river. It was during this work that I discovered that our river has underwater caves where trained scuba divers can dive and see some other cool critters!
Or: That takes the cake. I never knew any of that. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Katy: I would like to thank all of our excellent team at Ottawa Riverkeeper. I talked about our community-based monitoring earlier. I am not alone in running these projects. We have our Director of Science and Policy, Larissa Holman and our Research Scientist Matt Fyfe. I also want to mention our communications team, Matthew and Mark, who help us to share all our findings. They make sure our data is easy to find and easy to understand and are a vital part of what we do.
Or: That is so important! We all need to ensure we inclusively present our data. Thank you so much for your time today Katy. It was nice to learn more about what you do and everything the Ottawa River offers.
To learn more about the work of Katy and the creation of Ottawa Riverkeeper, visit their website at https://ottawariverkeeper.ca/
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