Dr. Jennifer Biederman checked a pH litmus test with volunteer Roger Berg at Cedar Valley Creek earlier this month.

Citizens lend ‘more eyes on our water’


Volunteers Amy Cordry and Roger Berg recorded water-quality test results on Cedar Valley Creek.
Volunteers Amy Cordry and Roger Berg recorded water-quality test results on Cedar Valley Creek.

Citizen-scientists sorted aquatic invertebrates into ice cube trays to count them.
Citizen-scientists sorted aquatic invertebrates into ice cube trays to count them.


Jeff Cadwell dumped the net onto the table and the frenzy began. People crowded around and nearly bumped heads leaning in to see. With tweezers they picked through soggy leaves and flecks of dirt, looking for signs of life.

“There’s a scud,” Amy Cordry announced. She lifted the tip of her paintbrush to scoop up a speck-sized, shrimp-like creature, then placed it neatly into a water-filled ice cube tray.

“Any snails yet?” Winona State University Professor Jennifer Biederman asked. None yet. Roger Berg brought a grubby larvae to her attention. “Looks like a common netspinner,” Biederman advised. Berg dutifully placed his find in the ice cube tray. The caddisfly squirmed, looking for an exit.

Cadwell, Cordry and the rest of this crew were searching for insects and other aquatic invertebrates this month as part of a citizen-science water-quality monitoring program called Save Our Streams. After straining their net through Cedar Valley Creek, the volunteers sorted creek-dwelling invertebrates into ice cube trays — a different cube for each species. These little bugs are the canaries in the coal mine for local streams.

“The more invertebrates, the better the quality of water,” Cadwell explained. If the water quality is low, he said, “There are some [species] that are really affected by pollution that won’t be present, and there are some that would be there regardless of the quality of the water. But the greater the diversity, the better the quality of water.”

The goal of Save Our Streams is to use volunteer power to bolster water-quality monitoring efforts. “Part of it is just giving people an opportunity to interact with their water in our region, but also there is a social benefit from having more eyes on our water,” Caroline van Schaik said. Van Schaik is a coordinator for the Izaak Walton League, the national conservation group behind Save Our Streams. Nodding to the “stream team” picking out scuds and snails, she added, “This is one way of getting those eyes.”

“If there’s a high-water event, we want to be better prepared to respond,” Biederman said. Citizen monitoring teams could help check local rivers for signs of pollution after a flood or other event, she explained. “If they’re able, they’ll run out and do this chemical monitoring and the physical monitoring, as well,” van Schaik stated. Pointing to the recent fish kill on Garvin Brook, Biederman added “It really highlighted the need to get citizens involved because there just isn’t enough manpower with the officials.”

Identifying invertebrate species is the hard part, Cadwell said. He recently attended a day-long Save Our Streams training in which he was coached and then tested on his ability to sort the critters. In addition to identifying caddisflies, the volunteers use chemical test kits to check for dissolved oxygen, pH level, and common pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphate. The results at Cedar Valley Creek were pretty good. Biederman chatted with the stream team about what other rivers they might focus on in future outings, including streams where they suspect the water quality might be lower.

“We were looking for a volunteer opportunity. We’re definitely interested in water quality,” Cadwell said when asked why he was spending his free time collecting water-quality data. Jeff and his wife Debra live nearby in Homer. They get their drinking water from a well and Jeff does some trout fishing — all reasons to care about what is flowing upstream. “Without water what are we?” he asked.

The results from these tests will go into the Izaak Walton League’s own publicly accessible database and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s publicly accessible Water Quality Exchange — a clearinghouse of data collected by government agencies, researchers, and volunteer monitoring groups all across the country. From there, the data will help researchers understand what is happening in local streams and inform policymakers’ strategies for combatting pollution.

Save Our Streams has a well-established program for getting citizens involved in serious monitoring, Biederman said. The program is regimented enough that citizens are able to collect data that is really meaningful to scientists and policymakers, van Schaik stated. “It’s the rigor of this program that’s particularly exciting from a citizen-science perspective, because then the data goes on to really work hard at the next level,” she said.

People interested in volunteering with Save Our Streams may contact van Schaik at caroline.ikesumri@gmail.com. Another training session is coming up this spring, but there are also jobs for volunteers with no training, as well.



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