Stream survey program monitors area waters

Have you ever seen photos of children or adults wading in streams or rivers and wondered just what they were doing? Chances are these people were assisting with Maryland's Biological Stream Survey Program.

The program began in 1993 to monitor the condition of the nearly 12,600 miles of streams and rivers in Maryland. It aims to assess the current condition of waterways, identify problem areas, provide an inventory of the plants and animals that inhabit these areas, gauge the success of restoration and conservation efforts, build a long-term database and communicate the results of this survey. Waterways are assigned a grade based on how healthy they are.

Little Hunting Creek

Credit: - Kai Hagen

A number of professional biologists and stream-wader volunteers help conduct portions of these surveys. During spring, the inventory is concerned mostly with small aquatic animals, also known as macro-invertebrates, and the collecting of water samples. Summer surveys look at fish populations, stream chemistry, other wildlife populations and the physical condition of the stream. Evaluating these parameters provides a snapshot of the health of the stream and the surrounding ecosystem.

One way of evaluating the relative health of streams is to sample the numbers and kinds of aquatic macro-invertebrates that occur in a section of the stream. Biologists use these small insects, worms and shellfish as samples because they are common and easy to collect, they have a fairly long life span, and they usually stay within a small section of the stream. Knowing that certain species are very sensitive to pollution while others can tolerate poor water quality provides a glimpse of the purity of the water.

Indicators of good water quality include mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, riffle beetles and gill-breathing snails. Intermediate water quality includes freshwater clams, mussels, crayfish, dragonflies and damselflies. Animals that can tolerate poor conditions include leeches, midges, black flies, worms and lung-breathing snails.

So if you are evaluating a stretch of stream and you find that stoneflies, mayflies and riffle beetles are the dominant macro-invertebrates, this should indicate good water quality.

The water chemistry samples taken are evaluated for their dissolved oxygen, pH, acid-neutralizing capacity, and amount of nitrogen and phosphorus present, each being an indicator of water quality. In most cases, the more dissolved oxygen found the better the water quality.

The presence of high concentrations of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can promote dense plant growth, such as algae blooms, which impact the health of the stream.

The influence of acid rain is causing some streams to develop a lowered "acidic" pH, which can be harmful to aquatic plants and animals, so the pH and buffering capacity of the stream is another important health consideration.

In addition, evaluating fish and wildlife populations provides a clue of the relative health of the stream. Observing species like brook trout in a stream is a good indicator of stream health since this fish is very sensitive to water quality or temperature changes.

Finally, looking at the color or condition of the water and the stream banks provides a glimpse into stream health. If the water is clear and cool, and the stream banks are wide and not eroded, you are viewing a healthy stream.

Frederick County contains some high-quality "first order" streams, along with some waterways with rather poor water quality.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature Notes for 11/28/2010