Jordan River: Monitoring Ecological Change with Smartphones and Social Media

Jordan River

By Lynn Berni, Guest Blogger

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community.

Salt Lake County Watershed Planning & Restoration is using crowdsourced photos to help with the ongoing monitoring of our stream restoration projects on the Jordan River! “How?” you may ask. It’s simple: Put up a sign inviting people to set their phone or camera in an angle bracket, take a photo, and post it to Twitter with a site-specific hashtag. Then we harvest the photos to create slideshows that show change over time.

Jordan River

An example of a crowd-sourced photo from one of our photo stations. Click on image for a larger view.

Jordan River Trail users may have already noticed a number of our “self-serve” photo monitoring stations, which were installed last fall. What’s new are the crowdsourced slideshows, now available on our website.

Post-project monitoring is an important part of any restoration project. With the new photo stations, we’re inviting citizens to become part of the monitoring process. This is truly a crowdsourcing effort. Salt Lake County doesn’t own these photos. We won’t download and save them somewhere. Instead, we developed an online tool that harvests the Twitter hashtags and allows us to view the photos in a slideshow format.

Image consistency is important for photo monitoring to be effective. The bracket on top of each photo station helps to ensure a consistent height, angle, and direction for each photo. It’s not perfect. Some photos have been taken vertically, when ideally we prefer them horizontal to capture as much of the restored streambanks as possible. But that little glitch aside, we’re getting loads of great photos! The end result: slideshows that simulate time-lapse photography.

Jordan River

One of our photo stations. Click on image for a larger view.

The stream restoration projects designed by Salt Lake County Watershed use natural channel design to repair damaged streambanks, restore natural function to the river, and improve habitat for wildlife above and below the water. Much of the Jordan River’s banks and historic floodplain have been negatively impacted in one way or another due to development and stream alterations. The reconstructed floodplains and banks at all of our restoration projects are revegetated with native riparian plants, and photo monitoring is a great way to track the growth and success (or failure) of the plants. Photos taken during high water will show how the floodplains are handling the flows. During winter, when foliage is off and water levels are typically lower, we’ll get a clearer view of how the reconstructed streambanks are holding up. We’re relying on our new network of citizen monitors to create a year-round photographic record.

We installed five photo stations along the stretch of river from Arrowhead Park at 4800 South to approximately 5100 South in Murray. These stations will monitor change at several phases of a major restoration project which began in 2015. There is one photo station at Winchester Park (6500 South in Murray) documenting the channel repair and revegetated streambanks completed in 2015. In Draper, we installed one photo station at the river realignment project at 12600 South (just down the trail from Jordan River Rotary Park), which was completed in 2010.

Jordan River

Location of the six photo stations along the Jordan River. Click on map for a larger view.

In addition to the photo monitoring stations, we also developed and installed a series of informational signs that discuss the goals and various aspects of our stream restoration projects. Both types of signs were included to create awareness of stream restoration techniques used by Salt Lake County Watershed Planning & Restoration, explain why the work was needed and how it can improve the river ecosystem for both wildlife and humans!

Next time you’re on the Jordan River Trail, keep an eye out for the photo monitoring stations. And snap a few pictures! Visit our website to learn more about our program and project work.

This project was partially funded by a grant from Jordan River Commission and Utah Forestry, Fire, and State Lands.

Lynn BerniI’m a watershed planner with Salt Lake County’s Watershed Planning & Restoration Program. Professionally, I enjoy the challenge of creating effective communication tools to help convey complex ideas to broad audiences. In my free time,  I enjoy hiking, botanizing, gardening, snowshoeing, and home improvement projects.