Water Quality Monitoring Program: Take a Class!

By Cathy Grubman Have you considered helping local habitats by improving water quality? One way is to join the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Water Quality Monitoring Program. It’s one of the largest and longest-running citizen science programs in the country. Coordinated by Cathy Wiss, the ANS program includes 175 members who monitor streams throughout Montgomery County and in parts of the District of Columbia. A good way to get started is by taking a class at ANS, taught by Wiss. Karen Kuehl attended the introductory two-hour class in January 2016. “I live off Sligo Creek and am very aware of how compromised it is,” said Kuehl, a master naturalist. “I wanted to find out what things we can do to help.” She and seven other students began by learning to identify the benthic macroinvertebrates that are the center of the water quality program.
Identifying benthic macroinvertebrates

Identifying benthic macroinvertebrates

“Benthic means ‘of the substrate,’” Wiss said. “That is where the macroinvertebrates live and where we find them. They help us determine the health of the stream because some are very sensitive to pollutants and environmental stress, while others are more tolerant.” So what does a benthic macroinvertebrate look like?
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Snail

They are animals without backbones — unlike fish — that live part or all of their lives in streams. Small yet visible to the naked eye, they include annelids, mollusks, crustaceans and some insects. Common examples are worms, leeches, snails, clams, crayfish, mayflies, water pennies, caddisflies, sowbugs and damselflies. Benthic macroinvertebrates are pretty important to the environment because they are food for fish, amphibians, birds and mammals. They break down leaves, other organic matter and nutrients. They filter water and may help maintain stream bed stability. The students in the Water Quality Monitoring class begin their study of benthic macroinvertebrates by working in the classroom to get an up-close look at the critters (the class will also go into the field). Using preserved specimens and microscopes, they compare them to drawings and descriptions. Bethesda ninth-grader Ella Wilks signed up for the class with her dad Gary. She can earn Student Service Learning credits for her participation in the class. Another student, Julie Simpson, is the executive director of the Port Tobacco River Conservancy, located in Port Tobacco, Md. “I’m here to learn more [regarding stream health],” she said. Little Falls Watershed Alliance executive director Sarah Morse came on a fact-finding mission as well. “We are trying to build a monitoring program,” she said. “Our creek is kind of dead so it will be nice to see other streams.” Then there was a husband-and-wife team, both earth scientists, who came because they are concerned about the Patuxent River water quality near their home in Ashton. Md. After completing the class, most of the students will then join the Water Quality Monitoring Program. Monitors do not have to take the class to participate, but it helps. “We encourage it,” said Wiss. “And the more you know, the more fun it is.” The volunteer commitment is three to four hours a visit, four times a year, at one of 29 locations. New volunteers are teamed up with experienced monitors at a stream site convenient to them.  “We have a lot of dedicated people in the program. We couldn’t do it without them,” said Wiss.
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Cathy Wiss examining specimens

The monitors use a “D-net” to collect macroinvertebrates. They gather them into the net by rubbing rocks on the stream bottom, where they may be attached or hiding. The macroinvertebrates are then separated, put into ice cube trays, and identified on site (teams identify to the taxonomic level of family). Besides collecting and identifying, the monitors record information such as pH, air and water temperature, and the physical surroundings. That information is then recorded in a database, managed by Wiss. The Audubon Naturalist Society has collected stream data since the early 1990s, so there is a lot to compare. A stream is rated from “Excellent” to “Poor.” Said Wiss: “A few of our streams are improving and some are holding steady, but unfortunately, for most of our streams, the water quality is declining.” The upper part of the County is doing better than the lower areas, she said. To sign up for a class or to join the Water Quality Monitoring Program, go to http://cleanstreams.anshome.org/water-quality-monitoring/.
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