Aquatic Detectives' Surprising Find

Nov 22, 2016

Six volunteers from Albemarle County are winning praise for solving a mystery that could have caused a public health crisis.  Sandy Hausman reports on what stream watchers found near a community of 12-thousand people called Lake Monticello:

Stream Watch volunteers study tiny creatures from river and stream beds to determine water quality.
Credit Stream Watch

Stream Watchers are volunteers trained to look for tiny bugs and snails on the beds of Virginia waterways.  By studying those invertebrates, they can tell a lot about how clean or dirty the water is.  Last month, Ida Swenson, Christine Kastan, Pat Burkett, Jim Cabot, Laura Troy and Joseph Bohn were wading in a stream that feeds Lake Monticello.

“We started looking through the net, and all we had were what are called sewer worms,"  recalls master naturalist Ida Swenson.  "They’re a bright red maggot that likes to be in sewage, and also lunged snails, which are a type of snail that breathes air, so it doesn’t care where it lives.”

Puzzled by what they had found,  they tried again.

“The second net came up just as nasty, and so a couple of us started walking upstream and found a large sewer pipe. that had actually broken at a joint.  The trail of toilet paper remains went down the stream a good 50-100 feet.”

The group quickly called for help.

“They were at the scene within an hour of our first discovery of it and had it fixed that very same day. Because it was in a deeply wooded area, it could have been there for years without anyone noticing it.”

StreamWatch volunteers are trained and certified by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and the data they collect is used to make environmental decisions around the state. There are no medals for their work, but Lake Monticello residents who swim, fish and boat in the lake are no doubt grateful.