Making a splash as a clean water champion

Story originally published in BioTalent Canada’s youth report: Growing the bio-economy: youth in focus

Juno Garrah reading water test resultsWhen hands-on summer programming got shut down by COVID-19 restrictions, Water Rangers’ new hire Juno Garrah took the outdoors online and helped the organization reach a wider audience than ever before. It was the first of many impacts she’s had since joining the non-profit with the help of BioTalent Canada’s Science Horizons Youth Internship Program.

Water Rangers helps protect Canadian waterways by providing “citizen scientists” with affordable test kits to do their own local water quality monitoring. Its educational programming gets kids out in the field to practice sample collection, and teaches them how to read and understand the results without having to go to a lab.

The summer programs are an integral part of Water Rangers’ work, says Water Rangers founder and executive director Kat Kavanagh, and bringing Juno on to support that effort was key.

“As a small social enterprise, we wouldn’t have been able to hire Juno without the BioTalent Canada subsidy — and we wouldn’t have adapted to the new format without her creative thinking,” Kavanagh explains. “Youth like Juno bring a different kind of energy for change that can really help push you along.”

Garrah set up Water Rangers’ virtual programming by converting her backyard — which edges onto the Ottawa Valley’s Mississippi River — into a live outdoor studio. The online format made it possible to engage kids as far away as Northern Ontario, Saskatchewan, BC and the Northwest Territories, expanding their traditionally local audience.

“It took some experimenting, but now we do all our programs online or over Zoom,” she says.

From sample collection to data aggregation

When summer programming wrapped up, Garrah turned her attention to the Water Rangers’ data platform, where users of the organization’s do-it-yourself water monitoring kits upload their results. She spent the fall and winter developing protocols to transfer the data automatically to DataStream, an aggregator that combines community, academic and government research into Canada’s most comprehensive water quality dataset.

“Wetlands and shorelines that protect waterways are degrading or disappearing as a result of climate change,” Kavanagh says. “And we still see runoffs from farming going directly into the water. Bringing as much data together as possible helps give an accurate and actionable picture of water quality across the country.”

The “desk job” experience

Juno Garrah reading water test results

The opportunity to work a “desk job” developing the data-transfer software was a valuable part of the Science Horizons placement, Garrah says. “Most of my jobs before had been more physical and outdoor-based. Working in an office with a team is totally different. Being involved in planning and coordinating is great experience I can apply as I move forward in my career.”

“This was a great place to land right out of school Having a year-long contract gave me time to settle in and find my role so I could really contribute.”

The full-year length of the placement was also crucial, she says. “Contracts in ecology and conservation are usually shorter, so this was a great place to land right out of school. Having a year-long contract gave me time to settle in and find my role so I could really contribute.”

Water Rangers is now looking for funding to keep Garrah on permanently, Kavanagh says, so they can continue to capitalize on her passion for freshwater protection.

“The sheer abundance of freshwater in Canada makes it impossible for governments to test it all, and since good data are needed for informed policy decisions, enlisting citizen scientists is key,” she says. “We need champions like Juno to get the word out.”

This project was undertaken with the financial support of: Environment and Climate Change Canada