Going for the gold takes dedication

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Every summer, Colleen Sharp spends hours in the water. Suiting up, then diving in, she hones her skills and technique like an athlete in training. She has inspired many, both young and old, with her dedication, drive and passion.

Colleen has what it takes to be a champion … the conservation kind. In the spirit of the Olympic Games, let us honor Colleen, and many others like her, who live throughout our neighborhoods and watersheds. These modest, aquatic champions work diligently all summer long, year after year, contributing to their communities yet expecting nothing in return.

Water warriors

Armed with nets, waders and the desire to make a difference, these water warriors are called stream quality monitors. It all started in 1968, when Ohio pioneered the river preservation movement with the passage of the nation’s first Scenic Rivers Act. This legislation created a state program to protect Ohio’s remaining high quality streams for future generations.

Though the rapid removal of our once-forested stream corridors resulted in degraded water quality and compromised aquatic diversity, the Scenic River Act was able to retain and preserve the integrity of the rivers that became “designated.”

Categories

The three categories for river classification are wild, scenic and recreational, depending on their qualities. Now decades after the Scenic River Act was passed, the restoration of streamside forests remains the single most important ingredient in maintaining the health of streams and rivers.

One component outlined in the scenic river protection strategy includes a stream quality monitoring and biological survey project using volunteers to supplement this effort.

Today, more than 5,000 volunteers monitor about 150 designated stations on Ohio’s scenic rivers.

New group

Here in Geauga County Colleen Sharp, natural resources specialist for the Geauga Soil and Water Conservation District has recruited another exceptional group of aquatic athletes for this summer’s stream monitoring program.

Formally known as the Millennium Youth Conservationists, this group includes a medley of members from elementary through college students, adults, scouts, seniors and families.

Every summer since its founding in 2000, the MYC “dives into” Geauga County’s major river systems to conduct stream quality monitoring surveys. Currently data is being collected at four sites within the Chagrin River and Grand River watersheds.

Double duty

Not only aquatic athletes, MYC members are also scientists who investigate both the chemistry and biology of the water. Using equipment and testing instruments, volunteers measure and record the levels of dissolved oxygen, conductivity, salinity, pH and temperature of the water.

But since water chemistry can fluctuate from day to day, the biology inhabiting a stream can be an even more effective indicator of the stream’s health. Large nets, called kick seines, are use to wrangle up these critters, known as macroinvertebrates because they lack a backbone (invertebrate) and can be seen with the naked eye (macro).

Getting these critters is no easy task as they often hide in fast-moving riffle areas of rivers and streams — either tightly gripping the bottom of rocks or in the bottom sediments of the channels.

Purpose

So why are we lassoing these larvae anyway? Because these crayfish, dragonflies, water pennies, caddisflies (and many more) tell us about the water quality. More specifically, their presence, abundance and diversity indicate the water quality of their habitat.

So the MYC team carefully collects, accurately identifies, precisely counts and consistently records all of the details of the macroinvertebrates, and then releases them back into the stream.

The relative number of pollution intolerant and pollution tolerant species gives a quantifiable picture of the quality of the creek or river water which is then ranked as excellent (or we could say gold), good (silver), fair (bronze), or poor according to a number formula devised by water quality experts.

Sampling macroinvertebrates allows us to study the changes that occur in the stream environment and “score” the stream. The assessments performed by these trained volunteers are used to produce the annual Stream Quality Report for our scenic rivers.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is able to review these snapshots of water quality and health with consistently collected data over a long period of time by using these qualified and passionate volunteers. Any differences in the chemistry and biology found may alert them to a problem with the water quality of that stream.

Throughout Ohio, there are many conservation champions who are giving their time, their passion and their service to provide Ohio with this critical data. Many Soil and Water Conservation Districts are spearheading stream monitoring efforts to analyze the health of area streams and rivers.

Volunteering

If you are interested in taking a peek at aquatic critters while contributing to invaluable research in your local streams, contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District or call the Northeast Ohio Stream Quality Monitoring Coordinator at 330-527-2961.

About the Author

Gail Prunty is the education/communications specialist for the Geauga Soil and Water Conservation District. More Stories by Gail Prunty

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