Today’s blog post is brought to you by Xander Kalna.
Now that you have learned about different habitats in streams and qualities that are important to them, we are going to talk about stream health. There are many ways to describe stream health based on dozens of variables but the easiest way (and cheapest usually!) is by conducting a biological assessment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines biological assessments as “an evaluation of the condition of a waterbody by sampling species that spend all or part of their lives in the waterbody.” That means one of the best ways to understand the health of a stream is to look at the animals that are able to live in that stream.
Now in this blog we are not talking about going and capturing a bunch of fishes and checking them out (you can ask our program director, Carol about that!), we are talking about collecting benthic macroinvertebrates. Benthic macroinvertebrates are small critters such as insects, snails, worms, and crayfish that live in the substrate of streams and lakes. Benthic macroinvertebrates are what we call biological indicators. Biological indicators are defined by the EPA as “groups of organisms used to assess the condition of an environment.” Benthic macroinvertebrates are important as biological indicators because there are many of them, so they are easy to find and losing a few during an assessment will not hurt the health of the stream Due to their small size and lifestyle, they are also very susceptible to pollutants in streams. As indicators, some benthic macroinvertebrates are highly susceptible to pollution, meaning if the stream is not in perfect or near-perfect health, these highly sensitive macroinvertebrates will not be found. Likewise, in a degraded stream, macroinvertebrates that are highly resistant to pollution will be present while others will not.
There are several organizations that investigate benthic macroinvertebrates; we are going to focus on two main organizations. While each organization we talk about may train you differently to sample for macroinvertebrates, the general idea is the same. One person will hold a net against the bottom of the stream while another person just upstream shuffles their feet (“Benthic Boogie”), in the substrate, kicking up rocks, dirt, plant matter, and–most importantly–benthic macroinvertebrates. The stream flow will carry whatever was disturbed into the net. This net is then emptied into a bucket of water and macroinvertebrates are picked out, identified, and recorded. Afterwards, these critters should be returned to the stream and all of the gear that was used should be cleaned or allowed to dry for several days before being used again. Doing this will help prevent any invasive organisms (organisms that are foreign to a ecosystem, that can cause widespread damage as they do not have any natural predators) from traveling to new streams.
Two organizations around St. Louis that are interested in knowing about benthic macroinvertebrates in streams and aided by citizen science are the Missouri Stream Team’s Voluntary Water Quality Monitoring program (VWQM) and the Illinois RiverWatch program. The Missouri Stream Team is a working partnership of citizens concerned about Missouri streams. The organization was founded in 1988 with three goals in mind: education, stewardship, and advocacy. The VWQM program was founded to establish baseline data on streams throughout Missouri, establish long-term trends, and locate streams in need of professional follow-up monitoring. To get involved with the program, locate an introductory class on their website and sign up! The staff and volunteers of the program will teach you all you need to know and give you all the resources to be successful. I have attended the introductory class and still learned new things even after obtaining a bachelor degree in biology in Missouri! After attending the introductory class and performing a site visit and day of sampling, you can attend additional classes leading to new types of stream health surveying!
The Illinois RiverWatch program safeguards the future of Illinois rivers and streams through stewardship, education, and sound science. The program works with trained citizen scientists to collect data on wadeable streams and foster coordination among groups involved in similar monitoring efforts. The program was founded in 1995 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and handed over to the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC) in Alton, IL, in 2006. NGRREC is a wonderful organization and you can learn more about them here!
I hope you consider joining one of these programs. The work they are involved in is important to our future and the work you do with these programs can be immensely rewarding. As the students working with me (and my wife!) discovered, a day in a stream conducting research is a great getaway and like they say, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.
Missouri Stream Team Website: http://mostreamteam.org/index.html
Guide to Aquative Macroinvertebrates: http://mostreamteam.org/assets/missouristreamteamguidetoaquaticmacroinverts.pdf
National Great Rivers Research and Education Center website: http://www.ngrrec.org/
EPA Wadeable Streams Assessment: https://www.epa.gov/national-aquatic-resource-surveys/wadeable-streams-assessment
Feature image credited to: https://dep.wv.gov/WWE/watershed/bio_fish/Pages/Bio_Fish.aspx