Watching Over Our Waters
Vol. 2 Issue 3, Fall 1997
By Maria Ruth
Stream Monitoring in Loudoun County
Stream-monitoring programs, started in Loudoun County in 1997, are part of a rapidly growing watershed protection effort sweeping the nation. The programs are usually spearheaded by conservation groups and supported by hundreds of volunteers. Loudoun’s program is coordinated by the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District, and the North Fork Goose Creek Watershed Project.
The volunteers contribute their concern for the environment and their enthusiasm for spending time shin-deep in water collecting and identifying bugs. But not just any bugs. Benthic macro-invertebrates–boneless creatures that live under flowing waters. These insects, snails, clams, worms and crayfish are sensitive in varying degrees to pollution and are valuable indicators of water quality and overall ecosystem health, the underwater version of the miners’ canaries.
When the call for volunteers went out in Loudoun, bug-watchers, wildflower enthusiasts, teachers, fishermen, backyard birders, and curious naturalists from all over the county flocked to stream-monitoring workshops held at county libraries and the Smithsonian Naturalist Center in Leesburg.
In just two workshops, Cliff Fairweather of the Audubon Naturalist Center trained more than 40 volunteers–men, women, students, and children, including many pairs of husbands and wives, mothers and sons, and grandmothers and grand-daughters. By July Cliff had trained enough volunteers to monitor streams in 8 of the county’s 14 watersheds.
In the next few years, the program organizers hope to see several monitoring sites on all our watersheds. To train enough volunteers to reach this goal, workshops will be offered three or four times each year. There is no age minimum or maximum and no scientific background is needed.
Workshops feature two two-hour classes focusing on macro-invertebrate identification. With an overhead projector, anatomical drawings, taxonomy charts, microscopes, preserved specimens, and an easy-going lecture style, Cliff leads students through a spineless world of caddisflies, stoneflies, crayfish and beetles.
Soon volunteers find themselves chatting comfortably about antennae, hooked legs, abdominal gills, thoracic plates and brushy appendages. Cliff also takes volunteers to a stream for a few hours to practice the actual monitoring and collecting techniques and protocol. Graduates are organized into teams of five, then choose or are assigned a stream.
“The work the volunteers are doing is not always leisurely,” says Cliff. “It can be hard at times, and it is important. I could have all the monitoring equipment in the world, but nothing would happen without the volunteers. They are the program.”
One grandmother and her 11-year-old granddaughter attended the first workshop together last spring. Says the grandmother, “The training was a bit tough at first, but I figured I’d keep going until I caught on. I love learning how to figure out which bugs are which. Emily’s really good at it.”
“Ever since I was little,” Emily reflects, “I remember going out onto the sidewalk to watch ants.” Her bug watching skills have led her to a science project on stream monitoring at Round Hill Elementary School last year and to honors science classes this fall at Blue Ridge Middle School. “She would do this forever,” says her mother. “Whenever I ask her what she wants to do, she says, ‘Go to a stream.’”
Streams are monitored once each spring, summer, and fall, with an optional winter survey. No special clothing or equipment is needed. Most team members wear clothes they don’t mind getting wet and dirty and rubber-soled sneakers or knee-high boots. All the equipment is supplied by the Audubon Naturalist Society and brought to the site by the team leader.
The monitoring site is a section of shallow stream, its banks, and streamside vegetation. Teams spend the first hour assessing the site’s habitat with air and water temperature, pH analysis, the composition of the stream bed, bank erosion and weather conditions.
When Gem Bingol leads her team at Tuscarora Creek in Leesburg, she makes sure everyone voices an opinion. When the team begins assessing how much of the stream bottom is covered with sediment, for example, Gem sounds like a novice auctioneer: “Less than 25 percent? What do you think, Dave? Bob, do you think 25 percent is too low? How about 50 percent? anyone think 50 percent?” No data is recorded until a consensus is reached.
Next the team collects insects by scrubbing and massaging rocks just upstream from a large canvas and mesh net. Bugs clinging to rocks are swept into the nets, which are then rinsed into large white buckets. Volunteers hover over the buckets with eye-droppers, tweezers and spoons to sort the often fast-moving and elusive macro-invertebrates into ice cube trays. Aided by hand lenses, field microscopes and identification charts, team members begin the work of identifying the macro-invertebrates until they reach a tally of 100.
The job is not as daunting as it may seem, since volunteers need only identify to the order level: knowing that a specimen is a member of the order Odonta (damselflies and dragon flies) is sufficient for data collection. But rare is the volunteer who doesn’t learn a few new species each time. The procedure takes about three hours, depending on the weather and the interests of the team members. Few amateur naturalists can help sharing their observations about the richness of the earth, and sessions evolve into team-taught classes.
“There’s a kingfisher!”
“Careful of this nettle, it really stings.”
“Is that a flycatcher?”
“This beaver dam looks new.”
“Loudoun County is fortunate enough to have streams that are all pretty good to excellent in water quality,” notes Cliff Fairweather. “But changes occur quickly. Loudoun has the luxury of doing some pro-active planning. Stream protection is still a viable option. If you want to see the alternative, go over to Fairfax County, where stream restoration is the only option.”
In Montgomery County, where the program is in its sixth year, a cadre of 140 volunteers monitors some 30 stream sites. Their data has been used in stream quality reports presented to the county’s board of supervisors and is being used in a county-wide watershed protection plan.
In Loudoun, organizers are very encouraged by the turnout of volunteers and the support for the program so far. Individuals neighbors, families, and civic, school and church groups can become involved and make a real contribution to the health and quality of their environment.