What's Streaming in Your Watershed?

August 22, 2016

Water pollution affects us all no matter where we live. Our water sources are very important because we use them for fishing, swimming, canoeing, drinking water, agriculture and industry. Keeping them clean and healthy is vital. That's where awareness comes in - both in the classroom and out. Knowing about watersheds, the water cycle, different types of pollution and how to check the overall health of a water source helps bring awareness and helps ensure we keep our water sources healthy, or in other words, balanced with fish, insects, plants and nutrients. One program is helping do just that. The Adopt-A-Stream program is about helping you to help others to help our environment. Our Science Scene Team attended an Adopt-A-Stream workshop led by program coordinator, Debra Veeder and some of her colleagues, at Percy Quinn State Park in McComb, MS, June 14-15, 2016, where we learned how to map a watershed and assess the water quality physically, biologically and chemically, in addition to learning about things we can do around our own homes to prevent pollution from reaching our water sources. The 2-day workshop was very informative and helped us realize "it begins at home!" 

The Adopt-A-Stream program uses volunteers to examine water quality and report their findings. Thanks to the simplification of science techniques, individuals (with or without a science background) can now measure environmental conditions for surface water. And if the volunteer is willing to learn, they can even make physical, chemical and biological assessments. That's where workshops like the one we attended come in handy! According to Adopt-A-Stream, there are five steps to stream evaluation:

  1. ‍Surveying and Mapping the Watershed
  2. ‍The Streamside Survey
  3. ‍The Biological Survey
  4. ‍The Chemical Tests
  5. ‍It Begins at Home.

Surveying and Mapping the Watershed is important because it helps you to know how big the watershed is and gives you a good idea of the land uses and possible pollution sources that may affect the stream. Pollution sources can be point source wastewater discharges or non-point source discharges. Point source wastewater discharges are from a specific source such as a municipal, industrial or commercial discharge pipe. Non-point source discharges consist of rainfall and other water that does not evaporate or soak into the soil and becomes surface runoff. This runoff can pick up soil, fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals, animal wastes, nutrients, and automobile waste substances and drain into various bodies of water. 

Before a biological survey or chemical tests can be done on the stream, a streamside survey of the stream reach and the surrounding watershed should be done. When performing a streamside survey, you should look primarily at the area immediately around the stream reach. You will want to be aware of water and sediment colors, odors, and you will need to determine the stream stage. These things offer clues as to what might be happening in your stream. For instance, if you notice the water to have a brown color, the possible cause could be erosion of soil in upstream areas; if it has a colored sheen, this is called a "rainbow effect" or biofilm and can occur naturally, but may also indicate oil in the stream. As far as odors, a rotten egg odor indicates sewage pollution while a chlorine odor can possibly be caused from a sewage treatment plant over-chlorinating their effluent.

Once the streamside survey has been completed, the next step is the biological survey. Macroinvertebrate counts and inventories are important to understanding the stream health. Macroinvertebrates spend their lives in the water and are directly influenced by any changes to the water, so they are good indicators of the water quality, as well as, the amount of pollution present. Keep in mind though, not all organisms in a stream can be used to judge water quality. For instance, according to Debra Veeder with Adopt-A-Stream, "whirligig beetles, water striders, and predaceous diving beetles are not usually included in the survey because they are surface organisms that breathe air and are not indicators of the dissolved oxygen (DO) content of the water." For more information on macroinvertebrates and some classroom activities in identifying macroinvertebrates, check out some of our previous macroinvertebrate blogs

The fourth step, the chemical analysis, should be done at the same time as the biological survey to help you identify what is in the water. There are four parameters that should be tested: temperature, pH, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen. Temperature is important because it affects the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water in addition to the chemical and biochemical reaction rates. For instance, water at lower temperatures holds more oxygen per liter and decreased reaction rates, whereas, water at higher temperatures holds less oxygen per liter and increased reaction rates. As for pH, organisms have "a relatively narrow band of pH in which they can live and survive." pH is also an important factor in the amount of treatment necessary for water to be used for drinking or for industrial water supply. Turbidity relates directly to rainfall and is caused by suspended solid matter which scatters light passing through the water, and in turn, reduces the amount of light that penetrates into water and is required for algae and aquatic weeds to use in photosynthesis. And the last parameter is dissolved oxygen (DO) which refers to the microscopic bubbles of gaseous oxygen (O2) that are mixed in water and available to aquatic organisms for respiration. DO is the basis for most aquatic life.

And last but not least, the 5th step to stream evaluation is "it begins at home". The Adopt-A-Stream program encourages volunteers to "clean up trash and debris on their streams, recycle used motor oil, conduct a Storm Drain Marking Project, participate in World Water Monitoring Day, do a Stream Bank Stabilization project, and become an advocate for good environmental policies by contacting state and local lawmakers."  

Keeping our environment balanced and healthy is of the utmost importance! The earlier we learn this, the better off our world will be. Here in Mississippi, the Adopt-A-Stream program offers an Aquatic Ecology program for students to increase awareness of the importance of keeping Mississippi streams clean. If you are in Mississippi and interested in an Adopt-A-Stream program, please contact Debra Veeder at (601) 605-1790 or by email at dveeder@mswf.org. The Adopt-A-Stream program also offers workshops to Envirothon students to help increase knowledge of Aquatic Ecology. If you are outside of Mississippi, check locally in your area for an Adopt-A-Stream program that will help you bring awareness and learning to your students. 

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.