Volunteers provide vital data on area streams

By Sue Smith-Heavenrich

Local “citizen scientists” collect aquatic invertebrates for a BMI sample from one of the smaller streams in the local watershed.
Local “citizen scientists” collect aquatic invertebrates for a BMI sample from one of the smaller streams in the local watershed.
This year, from spring through fall, more than 150 volunteers will pull on their boots and head out to gather water samples from local streams. They’re “citizen scientist” partners with the Community Science Institute (CSI), a nonprofit certified water quality testing lab in Ithaca. This is the 14th year that volunteers will test the waters, and the program has teams participating in different kinds of monitoring.
Some volunteers participate in synoptic sampling; that’s when teams head out on the same day to collect samples from all of the streams in a watershed. They collect samples for normal base flow conditions as well as storm events, when an inch or more of rain has fallen. Samples are analyzed at the lab for pH, alkalinity, turbidity, nitrogen and phosphorus, E. coli, chlorides, total suspended solids, specific conductance, and total hardness—all indicators of land development and agricultural impacts.
Other volunteers grab nets and tubs and head out for a day of biological monitoring, called BMI. The acronym stands for Benthic Macro Invertebrates, the insects and other invertebrates that live on stream bottoms. The stream-dwellers eat algae and other organic matter—sometimes they eat each other—and play an important role in both aquatic and terrestrial food chains.
While chemical monitoring produces snapshots of water quality on a particular day, benthic organisms live in streams for months. Some species are more tolerant of pollution than others, so the populations of benthic invertebrates in a stream indicate the overall health of a stream. This summer the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will conduct sampling in our watershed as part of a program for tracking water quality in the state. They are using results from CSI volunteer bio-monitoring teams to inform their sampling locations.
“Red Flag” teams head out each month to small streams where not much water quality data has been collected. Volunteers measure temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, hardness and conductivity to gain an understanding of the baseline quality of the water. These tests are “red flag indicators” because they have the potential to document catastrophic contamination events, such as chemical spills, and gradual degradation resulting from accumulation of small impacts over a period of years. This year these teams will begin collecting samples for phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients.
At the end of April, water volunters in Tompkins and surrounding counties gathered to compare notes and to learn more about the impacts of phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients on water quality. Cornell professor Robert Howarth, Jonathan Negley from the Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and dairy farmer Doug Young spoke about local solutions to global nutrient problems.
Howarth explained that 50 percent of freshwater ecosystems and 80 percent of coastal areas in the U.S. are affected by excess nutrients. The extra nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate algal growth in lakes and streams, eventually depleting the amount of oxygen available in the water for fish and other aquatic life. In lakes it’s usually phosphorus that’s the culprit, but in Chesapeake Bay the culprit is nitrogen. Finding a solution depends on understanding how mobile these nutrients are in the environment, and where they come from.
Negley focused on local environmental and agricultural projects that help reduce nutrients in surface waters. These include storm water management strategies, restoration of stream corridors, and mitigation of flooding hazards.
“When we talk about nutrients, we have to talk about agriculture,” he said. The SWCD isn’t a regulatory agency like DEC, Negley explained. Instead of dictating what farmers can do, SWCD works with farms on a voluntary basis to explore best management practices. These include grazing management, waste storage systems, and cropping systems such as no-till and contour plowing.
Young is one of those farmers; his nutrient management plan filled two thick binders. Young, owner of Spruce Haven dairy farm south of Auburn, said that while his main job is to raise food—he milks some 2,000 cows and manages 3,000 acres—he and other farmers have another job: to capture and reuse the nutrients and waste. One way he does that at Spruce Haven is using an anaerobic digester to turn manure into plant food and reduce the loss of nutrients into the water.
“We didn’t have $3 million for the stainless steel tanks, so we built a low-tech structure for about half that,” said Young. To solve the problem of nutrient runoff, he is working with Purdue University and other institutions to develop an implement that will deliver nutrients directly to the root zone of the crops.
“Somehow we need to fund the development of new technologies,” said Young, who is currently engaged in building and testing prototypes for his nutrient-delivery system. “Farmers who want to solve problems need support from their lenders.”
CSI director Steve Penningroth said that monitoring nutrients in local streams helps the lab identify areas with consistently elevated levels as well as seasonal fluctuation. Monitoring can help evaluate the success of nutrient management programs, he said, noting that data can also show impacts from storm water drainage or problems with sewage treatment plants.
For more information, visit www.communityscience.org.