Analyzing water is a complicated business. It can contain any number of pollutants and require a variety of regulations to clean it up, but the state of Virginia is using a simpler approach – letting nature determine water quality, and asking citizens to help.
On a sunny weekday afternoon, four people arrive at a one-lane bridge northeast of Charlottesville, unpacking a car loaded with mysterious gear – nets, gloves and waders, a table and chairs. They could easily be mistaken for picnickers. In fact, they’re on a more serious mission.
“Today we’re looking for benthic macro-invertebrates, which are insects that live at the bottom of the stream.”
Anne Dunckel is the Monitoring Program Manager for StreamWatch – a group of citizens, specially trained to Department of Environmental Quality standards. They gather information at 45 sites in the Rivanna River Basin.
“You worry about runoff from farms, fertilizer or from livestock.”
Dot Price is a master naturalist, tested by the DEQ to assure the accuracy of the data she’ll gather today at Mechunk Creek. Some bug larvae are highly sensitive to pollutants, she says, so their presence will signal a healthy stream.
“By seeing what kind of bugs we have, DEQ can then make a rating as to the health of the stream.”
And if the stream is in trouble, the department can impose regulations on neighbors to limit additional pollution.
Price and Dunckel join Zack Delgresso and Marilyn Smith in wading through the stream, stopping at a shallow spot, stirring up the bottom for a few seconds, then scooping it into a net.
“Set go. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. Stop.”
The contents are then dumped onto a table, where the team will look for and identify larvae.
“This is a hellgrammite right there. It’s the larva of the Dobson fly. They have these rather claw like pinchers that they have on the end of them. Kids love them.”
They fill water bottles and spray the tiny creatures to keep them cool and wet.
It takes keen eyesight, patience and a thorough knowledge of things that live in Virginia streams.
“Mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, beetles, true flies, and then within those orders we have flat heads, spiny crawlers, small minnows. In addition to that, there’s clams and snails and worms.”
On a day like this, it’s delightful work, but Delgresso admits it can be dangerous.
“Slippery rocks. That’s the one thing that’ll surprise you. You’ll just look very uncoordinated for a second. “
Volunteers may also encounter nosey neighbors.
“Cows. Cows are always interested in what you’re doing.”
But the people who pass by often say thanks. They appreciate the stewardship of Stream Watchers, and Marilyn Smith believes the group has done some good.
“This is ten years of data that’s helping to frame what’s going on, and even though the water quality hasn’t improved that much, a lot more development has gone on, so hopefully it’s doing some good and just raising people’s awareness.”
Price invites anyone with at least a dozen free hours a year to consider signing up, for the sake of clean water – and for their own good.
“I like learning stuff. It’s really interesting at my age to have to learn insects – entomology. This is not something I ever thought I’d be doing, and it’s hard. It really works my brain, which is good.”
And for those who are too busy to go wading in Rivanna streams, Smith says the public can help by picking up after pets, withholding fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides from lawns and properly disposing of oil and chemicals