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by Chris Keil

Water quality in our streams is important for drinking and recreation. It also is an indicator of greater ecosystem health. There are many criteria for determining stream health and water quality. Some of these parameters require sophisticated equipment while other assessment techniques use simple observations. To create datasets that are helpful for people planning restoration on a watershed scale, it is difficult to deploy expensive equipment and trained specialists to gather data over a large area. This issue is compounded by the fact that state and federal agencies do not have adequate budgets for such important endeavors. Nonetheless, the public and private sectors are finding ways to collect data that will ultimately promote clean water with the help of dedicated volunteers. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) has started a program that uses “citizen scientists” to collect data on streams throughout the Hudson River Watershed. Wadeable Assessments by Volunteer Evaluators (WAVE) is a volunteer program; participants collect and identify aquatic organisms in local streams and submit their data sheets and preserved samples to professional biologists in Albany.

The Bugs in Our Streams

Residents of the Hudson Valley Watershed collect benthic macroinvertebrates, typically aquatic insects, which are excellent indicators of stream water quality. Certain types of benthos, such as stoneflies, require high levels of dissolved oxygen and are vulnerable to contamination and sediment pollution. In addition, benthic macroinvertebrates, along with plankton and algae, are near the base of the aquatic foodweb and are therefore critical to the success of coldwater fish species, such as trout.

There is a lot of flexibility in the timing of data collection because many of these benthos have limited mobility, are easy to collect, and live in the same stream for all or most of their lives. WAVE voluteers collect species by disturbing (or kicking) the stream bottom in a riffle area and collecting the macroinvertebrates in a fine mesh net called a kick net. The data collected in this effort is used by fisheries, biologists, municipalities, and local watershed protection groups, and made available to the general public.

Identifying these species can be difficult and comprehensive surveys are best suited for trained professionals. For example, there are over 500 species of stoneflies in North America, and the nymphs that one might find in one’s local stream can be very small and difficult to identify at a species level. The beauty of the WAVE program is that it simplifies the collection, identification and assessment, and it is easily replicable. If volunteers collect and identify four different “Most Wanted” organisms of the thirteen listed, biologists can reliably conclude that a stream is in good health. While the absence of these aquatic insects does not necessarily mean a stream is degraded, it flags the waterbody for further investigation. Organisms such as worms, scuds, red midges, and zebra mussels have greater tolerance of conditions typical of impaired streams. As a result they are classified as “Least Wanted.” Presence of these species may be a sign that a stream is under stress.

Other Examples of Citizen Science

The WAVE program is just one of several citizen science initiatives in New York and while it is only in its second year of operation, there are other examples of long-established and successful citizen science programs. The Audubon Society continues to facilitate the Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900. Amateur birders collect population data that has become a useful tool in conservation biology. The BioBlitz is another example. The term was coined by U.S. National Park Service naturalist, Susan Rudy. The goal of the BioBlitz is to conduct species surveys of large landscapes in a short period of time. These BioBlitzes take place throughout the world.

An emerging trend is to equip volunteers with smartphone applications such as iMapInvasives and What’s Invasive!, which allows users to collect and share data on invasive species proliferation.  Local residents and professional scientists can jointly collect and analyze data over a large areas with a shared and standardized sampling plan. With built-in cameras and GPS units, smartphones are powerful tools for collecting such information. Citizen science is a cost-effective means of valuable data collection that encourages people to interact and learn about their local environment with the hope of engendering a conservation ethic, better land stewardship, and an interest in ecology. Plus, it can be a lot of fun.

Want to be a citizen scientist? Visit the NYSDEC website to learn how you can be a WAVE volunteer for the Hudson River Estuary.


Other References:

Volunteer Opportunities in the Hudson River Estuary, NYSDEC

Citizen Scientists Needed to Collect Water Quality Data in Hudson River Watershed,NYSDEC

Data Uses by (New York) State(s). Scott Kishbaugh, P.E.

Invertebrates as Indicator, USEPA

Getting down and dirty for good reason. The Observer for Red Hook, Rhinebeck, Milan and Tivoli.