By equipping communities with accessible tools to monitor water quality, Kat Kavanagh is democratizing water protection and building community agency over local waterbodies. Through her organization Water Rangers, Kat is working in partnership with community groups, Indigenous communities, governments, and educational institutions to enable them to collect and share water quality data, identify water health issues, and advocate for evidence-based decision making. In doing so, Kat is filling water quality data gaps and creating a world where everyone can be a water steward.
Kat Kavanagh is democratizing the protection of waterbodies by equipping communities with accessible tools to collect water quality data, understand the health of the water in their community, and take evidence-informed action to protect it. When Kat first began researching access to community-based water monitoring in 2015, she approached community groups and found that while they would like to contribute to gathering water quality data, the process was too technical and expensive. To address this, Kat made it her mission to lower the barriers to water stewardship through her organization Water Rangers, which provides affordable, accessible, and user-friendly water monitoring tools. The tools include innovative water quality testing kits, water stewardship resources, and an open data platform that tracks water quality results over time. Kat’s model prioritizes simplicity and makes water testing an enjoyable experience that connects people to nature and to their community.
Water Rangers enables anybody, whether they are part of a community-based water monitoring group or are concerned about the stream in their own backyard, to become a water tester and track water quality. More affordable than existing market options, Water Rangers’ kits test both saltwater and freshwater. Moreover, unlike other test kits, they do not require users to have any scientific background nor prior training for use. The Water Rangers data platform was designed to be user-friendly for the average person, unlike other water quality data platforms that were built for scientists and typically are not accessible to community members as a result A Water Rangers tester can easily upload data to the platform, compare it to other data in order to monitor long-term water quality, and understand the health of their local waterbody.
Kat’s accessible, user-friendly model unlocks a new audience of community scientists and gives them agency over their water health. While any individual can access Water Rangers’ resources to become a water steward, their primary audience is community-based water monitoring groups, Indigenous communities and Indigenous-led water monitoring initiatives, local governments, and educational institutions that face barriers to water monitoring. Using the Water Rangers tools, groups are able to broaden their audience of water testers to engage community members. This enables groups that were previously collecting water quality data to do so on a much larger scale and other groups, such as schools, to begin water testing where it would have been previously inaccessible.
The Water Rangers intuition is that when people are empowered to learn about, and enabled to test their local waterbodies, they are prompted to act to protect their water and advocate for its health. Kat sees water stewardship as an entry point to broader environmental stewardship, as it gives people agency to make change in the face of the climate crisis. Water Rangers provides an outlet for people to harness the anxiety and worry they have for their local lakes, rivers, and oceans— and in general about climate change—and turn it into positive action. Kat’s work has shown that water monitoring can transform the way someone views their relationship to the environment and their motivation to protect it. Water Rangers is shifting behaviour in their water testers, with over 80% of Water Ranger volunteers stating that since becoming involved, they have spent more time in nature, taught others how to test water, and spoken to others about environmental protection.
Through extensive partnerships with over 200 community groups and with education programs embedded across Canada, Water Rangers has reached over 25,000 people and is bringing people into a space that was previously only held by scientists and governments. Kat is working towards a future where every community is equipped with the tools they need to have agency over the protection of their water.
Waterbodies around the world are facing major threats from climate change, pollution, overuse, habitat loss and fragmentation, and invasive species. Canada holds 20% of the world's freshwater supply, with over two million lakes, thousands of rivers, countless streams, and the longest coastline of any country in the world. Access to accurate data about water health is essential to making evidence-informed decisions for water protection. The number of waterbodies in Canada makes it extremely difficult for trained scientists to collect widespread, long-term water quality data to track water health and be able to identify and solve the specific issues impacting different waterbodies. The World Wildlife Fund-Canada 2020 Watershed Reports found that nearly 60% of Canadian sub-watersheds lack sufficient data to understand their water quality and to paint an accurate picture of their health.
Water connects our ecosystems and plays a pivotal role in every environmental emergency. Waterbodies need people at the community level who feel responsible for their health to track water quality over time, sound the alarm when issues are identified, and advocate for evidence-informed decision making from authorities. Water monitoring led by communities, which is referred to as community-based water monitoring, is recognized as a viable solution for reducing data gaps and enabling communities to become the leaders of their own water protection, yet water monitoring is not accessible to the average person. Even though many Canadians say they care about water protection, most are not able to participate in stewardship for their local waterbodies. Those that want to get involved or increase their capacity to participate in community-based water monitoring share the common challenge of inadequate resources and training. With eco-anxiety affecting two-thirds of adults and 84% of children and young adults, and many people feeling a sense of powerlessness towards protecting the environment, opportunities to engage in positive environmental action are needed.
Traditional water monitoring methods are expensive and require scientific training to collect and understand water quality data. This hinders the ability of communities to engage people in local water stewardship, while existing groups and organizations interested in water protection often lack the capacity to collect water quality data at the scale that is needed. These barriers to water testing have resulted in data deficiency for waterbodies, people who are not engaged in water stewardship, and communities that are lacking the agency to protect their water.
Through Water Rangers, Kat is unlocking community access to a space that has traditionally been held by scientists and governments. By designing an accessible water monitoring process, integrating into education systems, and forming strategic community partnerships, Kat is democratizing water protection and enabling anyone to become water stewards. In doing so, Kat is increasing the availability of water quality data, improving community agency to protect local waterbodies, and motivating volunteer water testers to contribute to broader environmental stewardship.
Kat has designed water testing kits that are affordable and easier to use than traditional water testing tools, and which do not require extensive training nor a scientific background. The test kits have gone through several iterations since their launch in 2016, as Kat is dedicated to continuously improving user experience, accuracy, and affordability. There are different types of test kits that range in size to meet the diverse needs of users. Tests measure health factors such as chlorine, alkalinity, conductivity, clarity, and dissolved oxygen. Accompanying the kits are field guides and training videos that provide simple directions to complete the tests and analyze the results. The field tests offer immediate results, so users can interpret the results and understand the implications for water health.
Once a user has completed water quality tests, they are then prompted to enter the data in the Water Rangers open data platform. Anyone can visit this platform to access data on their local waterbodies and observe patterns in water health over time. Their data platform links to another Canadian data platform, DataStream, which works closely with scientists and governments, to increase the visibility and impact of the data Water Rangers’ users have collected. In addition to their web-based platform, Kat has also designed an app that allows testers to submit their data even without an internet connection, which makes water testing more accessible to rural communities.
Rather than directly engaging in scientific research and activism themselves, Water Rangers has formed strategic partnerships with groups that are already embedded within communities to mobilize water testers, data analyzers, and environmental advocates at the local level. Kat works with community groups, non-profit organizations, educational institutions, local governments, and conservation authorities to increase their capacity to begin or scale water monitoring operations and to get more people involved in water stewardship. Using the Water Rangers tools, groups already doing water monitoring are able to scale their operations by engaging new volunteers, cutting back on training time, and accessing results more quickly. Groups for whom water monitoring was previously inaccessible can become engaged using Water Rangers’ accessible, user-friendly tools. As of 2023, over 200 groups use the Water Rangers platform to manage and share their data.
These partnerships enable communities to collect more data on the health of their waterbodies, which is essential to being able to advocate for evidence-based decision making. For example, a community in New Brunswick was facing a proposed mine that had the potential to pollute their local river. Using the Water Rangers tools, the community was able to collect baseline data about their river and feel empowered knowing they had the evidence to hold the mining company to a high standard of water quality and advocate for their water’s health.
Kat’s partnerships are strategically focused on communities that could most benefit from support. Water Rangers has an internal mandate for any of their grant-funded programs to use at least 25% of the resources to support under-served and Indigenous communities. One area of Canada with a significant gap in water quality data is the province of Saskatchewan, where agricultural practices have resulted in degradation within waterbodies. Water Rangers has partnered with the University of Regina, the Saskatchewan water testing community, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Canada to implement a community-based water monitoring program that is engaging volunteers to test 70 lakes and rivers over five years. Kat’s work in the Southern United States, including in Mississippi and Florida, demonstrates that water stewardship is a concept that reaches across political divides and unites people for the common good of water protection.
Through partnerships with 25+ Indigenous nations and Indigenous-led programs across Canada, Water Rangers supports self-governance in the management and protection of waterbodies within Indigenous communities. When considering the colonial history that has impacted Indigenous communities in Canada, sovereignty over the protection of their own land and water is particularly important. The Water Rangers test kits can be adapted to be culturally relevant and cognizant of community needs. For example, some Indigenous communities were concerned with data sovereignty and chose to keep their water quality data within the community rather than utilizing the open data platform.
To engage the next generation of water stewards, Water Rangers partners with schools and trains educators to integrate water monitoring into STEM curriculum. Their tools and resources are part of education programs in every province of Canada. Water Rangers’ Education Test Kit, which was designed for educators, is now Water Rangers’ most popular kit. Through these partnerships, over 15,000 youth have engaged in water testing, 2300 of whom are Indigenous. Based on survey data, 88% of these youth have an increased interest in STEM as a result of their involvement.
Kat plays a key advocacy role in supporting the recognition of community-based water monitoring as an accurate, budget-friendly, and important source of water quality data alongside traditional methods. In Canada, Kat was instrumental in the creation of the national Community-Based Water Monitoring Collaborative to build relationships between the federal government and community groups. The Collaborative recently commissioned a report on the Business Case for Investment in Canadian Community-Based Water Monitoring and Kat is working to support community groups in assessing the tool to calculate the value of their work and their data. Kat has been part of consultations on the new Canada Water Agency and co-wrote a series of recommendations, signed by sector leaders, to advocate for community-based water monitoring during the last federal election. Most recently, Water Rangers was selected as the new stewards of the World Wildlife Fund’s Watershed Reports for Canada. These reports are a vital storytelling piece on how Canada is currently failing to protect freshwater, and Kat is planning to embed more calls to action throughout future reports to encourage readers to take action towards water protection.
Through their partnerships, education programs, and advocacy, Water Rangers has engaged 25,000+ people in water testing, monitored 5,500+ waterbodies, and collected 200,000+ data points. While their focus has been primarily on operations in Canada with an ongoing expansion into the United Kingdom and the United States, Water Rangers tools are used in 20+ countries. Kat’s work is shifting the behaviours and beliefs of communities to feel more connected to their waterbodies and responsible for their well being. Surveys have shown that 95% of water testers reported that since engaging with Water Rangers, they now believe it’s important to do what they can to preserve the environment, while 89% think about how their actions affect the environment. 83% report that since getting involved with Water Rangers, they have taught others how to test water, 82% have spent more time in nature, and 91% have spoken to others about environmental protection.
As Water Rangers continues to grow every year, Kat is focused on developing new partnerships to expand their global reach and growing the body of evidence to support the link between water testing and water stewardship. In the next five years, Kat plans to gather case studies that demonstrate community-based water monitoring data leading to evidence-informed reformations in policy and restoration efforts. She also plans to support five new countries in setting up water monitoring programs.
As a child, Kat remembers watching her father painstakingly collect water quality data from their beloved local lake, send it off to the conservation authority and wait months for results to be interpreted. As an adult, Kat would return to her family home to find filing cabinets of her father’s long-awaited results, and the idea for Water Rangers would form.
Growing up spending summers at her family’s lake house, Kat developed a relationship with nature from an early age. As a creative and curious child, she spent her time exploring new hobbies, creating artwork, starting clubs with friends, and teaching herself new things like taking apart her family’s computer and putting it back together again. From a young age, Kat remembers valuing the feeling of being part of a community and wanting to make her community a better place. With a passion for design and a desire to tackle big projects, Kat pursued a management degree from McGill University and taught herself coding on the side. Following her degree, Kat spent time living in Japan and then the UK, where she became dedicated to using her design skills to make positive change. She launched her own design company in 2010 that focused on projects with social purpose, including The Natural Edge, an app that helped Watersheds Canada plan shoreline restorations, ShrimpsMatter, a game that raised awareness about the ocean ecosystem, and Can I Help?, an award-winning game designed for the Canadian Government to facilitate meaningful conversations about mental health.
Returning to her family’s lake house in 2014, Kat was reminded of her father’s struggles to test their local lake over the last twenty years. As a designer and problem solver, she began to dream about how much more accessible the water monitoring process could be for community members. In 2015, she pitched the Water Rangers concept at AquaAction’s AquaHacking, a water-focused pitch competition, and won. Kat incorporated Water Rangers as a non-profit organization and launched the first set of water monitoring tools and resources in 2016. She continued to freelance on the side and undertook a Masters of Science at McGill University to better understand water science. Through her Masters research and a fellowship at Building 21, she explored how to provide meaningful real-time water quality results for community-based water monitoring. By 2018, Water Rangers had been awarded the Early Adopter Award from WatersNext for their work in citizen science.
When Kat’s father passed away in 2020, Kat felt that she was at a pivotal turning point in her life and questioned the legacy that she herself would leave behind. Remembering her father’s devotion to their local lake and why she started Water Rangers in the first place, Kat decided to fully devote her time and energy to Water Rangers. Her passion for water stewardship extends beyond Water Rangers, as she volunteers her time to sit on the board for Watersheds Canada, is a member of the Canadian Water Monitoring Collaborative, and is a trustee for the River Wey Trust in the UK. People who know Kat all comment on the same thing- her infectious enthusiasm and passion for water protection. She lives by the daily mantra, “How can I ensure that the world is slightly better because I am in it?”