Our volunteers monitor our local streams for the educational experience, to meet old friends, create new friendships, and just enjoy the sights and sounds of a babbling brook for a couple hours. Although this is fulfilling and fun, the data generated from stream monitoring has much more significance and impact than many realize.
Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy uses the Virginia Save Our Streams (VA SOS) Modified Rocky Bottom Sampling Method to monitor streams for benthic macroinvertebrate organisms. These bottom-dwelling organisms are great indicators of overall aquatic stream health. The protocol was developed by the Izaak Walton League of America and has been reviewed and approved by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ). By using the approved VA SOS method, our stream monitoring data is credible to local, state, and federal governments as well as able to be shared and compared with other conservation organizations throughout the state.
Let’s follow the data and see how two hours of stream sampling can have an impact on public opinion and government policy. Our monitoring teams are led by a certified team leader. Each team leader has completed training and passed a test on the sampling method and benthic macroinvertebrate identification. Following each monitoring event, the team leader sends the data to our data manager, who does a quality control check and adds the data to our database. The data manager also forwards the data to Loudoun Watershed Watch, a local stream monitoring consortium, and to the VA SOS organization (www.vasos.org), which then forwards the data on to VDEQ.
VDEQ is the state agency responsible for assessing and reporting on the surface water quality of Virginia’s streams and rivers. VDEQ has limited resources to monitor the thousands of miles of streams in the state and thus has approved methods that enable citizen volunteers to submit monitoring data. The VA SOS method has been approved by VDEQ, and therefore the stream monitoring data we supply to VDEQ provides them additional eyes on the water.
VDEQ uses stream monitoring data to assess whether the surface water quality meets its adopted standards in five areas: recreational use, aquatic use, drinking water supply, fish consumption, and wildlife support. Recreational use is determined by the bacteria level, and aquatic use is based on the benthic macroinvertebrates. If a stream segment is found to have lower than acceptable standards, VDEQ will designate the stream reach as “impaired”. VDEQ has assessed approximately 30% of Loudoun County’s streams for aquatic life use and 25% for recreational use. Stream impairments are reported to EPA and may also trigger a lengthy process that may eventually lead to stream restoration. That process involves the development of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the pollutant of concern. A TMDL is the average daily maximum amount of the pollutant the stream can assimilate and still remain unimpaired. Loudoun County has six watersheds for which a TMDL has been written and approved.
Following the development of a TMDL for a stream segment, the next step is the creation of an implementation plan. An implementation plan must identify the particular areas and practices that must be modified in order to bring the water quality below the TMDL. The implementation plan must then be “implemented”. This can involve a wide variety of tasks from public education and incentive programs to large construction projects. The cost is often in the millions. Loudoun County has had one implementation plan, which resulted in a five-year project to improve the water quality in Catoctin Creek. The project was completed in 2009.
Although VDEQ has a methodology to assess, define, and eventually remediate stream segments, the entire process is very time consuming and costly. So, as with many other things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The more we can do to educate people about stream quality and practices that can prevent stream degradation, the greater the likelihood we can prevent very large expenses down the road. The rewards, of improved stream and streamside habitat health, are great.
Since 1997, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy volunteers have conducted 400 benthic macroinvertebrate sampling events and almost 1,000 bacteria water sampling events. Our teams also conduct stream habitat assessments, which evaluate the overall health of the in-stream and riparian areas.
The Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy stream monitoring program produces credible scientific data that is used by all levels of government to monitor the health of our surface water. However, perhaps more important is the educational value obtained from the simple act of monitoring. The cost of stream restoration clearly indicates that the primary solution to water quality problems will come from modifying our actions on the land.