Citizen scientists get their feet wet
For the past few weeks, Gem Bingol of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) has been wading into the waters of Westbrook and Roseville Runs with citizen volunteers to monitor stream health. She and her volunteers share some of their experiences in a new video produced by The Downstream Project.
Both Westbrook and Roseville Run feed into Spout Run, a tributary of the Shenandoah River that is on Virginia’s Impaired Waters list for bacteria and for aquatic life. “Impaired” means that bacteria pollution levels in Spout Run are so high, it doesn’t meet state or federal standards for fishing or swimming. The stream also has so much sediment that many bottom-dwelling insects and other small creatures eaten by fish can’t survive. With leadership from PEC, The Downstream Project (TDP), Friends of the Shenandoah and other community partners, Clarke County citizens are now working to restore the watershed as part of the C-Spout Run restoration project, and remove it from the Impaired Waters list by 2025.
With input from local residents and these groups, the state of Virginia has come up with a plan to restore Spout Run. The plan is now underway, but judging its success will be difficult without some indicators along the way. That’s where citizen monitoring comes in. Gem and her teams are looking for benthic macroinvertebrates – insects, crustaceans, worms, snails and clams that live on the bottom of streams – to see what kind of life Spout Run and its tributaries currently support. As Gem explains in the TDP video below, some macroinvertebrates are more tolerant of pollution than others. When she and her volunteers find a lot of critters that are tolerant, and few that are intolerant, she knows that stream conditions are harming aquatic life and will need to be improved to restore the watershed. Benthic macroinvertebrate monitoring is particularly useful because it reveals not only the health of the streams, but also the health of the surrounding land in the watershed. Sensitive stream creatures need all the components of a healthy stream ecosystem, including shade trees and plants along waterways. When a watershed doesn’t have enough vegetation along its streams, many benthic macroinvertebrates will disappear.
But crawly creatures aren’t the only way to measure stream health. As volunteer (and a director of the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation Service) Wayne Webb notes in the video, Friends of the Shenandoah River has been measuring actual pollution levels at key monitoring locations on the Shenandoah for years. Those pollutants include nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from fertilizer, livestock and erosion. Collecting both kinds of information at the same sites in Spout Run over time will help identify baseline conditions, point to potential sources of the problems, and reveal if corrective measures solve the problems.
It takes a lot of feet to cover the 14 miles of stream in the Spout Run watershed. To attend a training session and become a citizen scientist contact Gem Bingol at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the FOSR website.