Conservation and watershed groups learn stream monitoring techniques

Article contributed by the Pioneer in Big Rapids 
by Adam Gac on June 20th, 2016

stream monitoring techniques muskegon river michigan

SETTING OUT: After spending the morning learning how to search for macroinvertebrates, participants in the MiCorps stream monitoring program donned waders and began the process of assessing a stretch of Mitchell Creek in Hemlock Park. (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

BIG RAPIDS — More than two dozen representatives from watershed and conservation organizations across the state rolled up their pant legs or tossed on waders on Monday before striding into Mitchell Creek in search of macroinvertebrate life.

The representatives were participating in stream monitoring training through MiCorps, a statewide program run by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Trainees learned how to assess a stream’s ecosystem in order to return to their organizations to teach other people how to participate in the monitoring process, according to Paul Steen, Huron River Watershed Council aquatic ecologist and instructor for the training program.

“We are looking for the living creatures in wadable streams and creeks – aquatic insects, crustaceans, crayfish, clams,” he said. “If you take a sample of all of those together, it indicates the overall health of the ecosystem.”

High quality streams have a lot of different areas where different organisms can live, Steen said.

“Different creatures need different places to live. The more different types of creatures we find indicates a greater number of different habitats in the stream for those organisms to live,” he said. “Highly degraded streams will lose a lot of that habitat. You won’t have undercut banks. You won’t have overhanging vegetation. It will just be a straight shot of sameness.”

Trainees in the program used nets and trays to collect samples of insect and other life from the creek bed as well as other likely invertebrate hangouts, like under rocks or inside logs. Kayla Knoll, of the Manistee Conservation District, said macroinvertebrate surveys are great for understanding the health of a stream.

“It’s a really attainable way to look at stream health,” she said. “Instead of having a dissolved oxygen meter, a temperature reader and a nitrogen testing kit, you can just look at macroinvertebrates to get an idea of how healthy a stream is.”

There are a number of reasons why it is important to maintain healthy bodies of water, Knoll said.

“Healthy streams tie in to our health as human beings,” she said. “It correlates with our drinking water, our fishing, our economic wellbeing, as well as our physical wellbeing. If it’s good for wildlife, it’s good for us.

“In Manistee, a big part of our economic wellbeing is based on natural resources, whether that means forestry or fishing. It’s really important in our area and we’re lucky enough to have really high quality water. But, if we’re not careful, it can quickly turn. Monitoring is very important in maintaining the economic wellbeing we already have.”

Stream monitoring takes place across the state every year in the spring and in the fall, according to Dixie Ward, Muskegon River Watershed Assembly project manager.

“Volunteers in each watershed collect information and send it in to the person in charge of that area,” she said. “We take that information and we put it in a statewide database and eventually we use that information to determine needs in streams – to determine if further evaluation or work is needed.”

Mike Fisher, a volunteer with Little Forks Conservancy in Midland, stressed the importance of stream monitoring in gathering concrete information that can be communicated to the general public.

“Watersheds are something a lot of people take for granted,” he said. “We are doing a lot of things to damage them that are just accepted as normal. The more information we gather, the more we can open people’s eyes and maybe change their practices as far as the way we farm and the way we take care of waste. Saying there is a problem is one thing, but actually being able to show people is important.”

Steps can be taken to remediate a creek or stream that is not providing an ideal range of habitats for macroinvertebrates. Mitchell Creek has two issues that could be addressed to help increase the number of organisms there, Steen said.  The first of the issues is the creek is very straight.

“When things have been put into straight lines, it’s because the focus of the stream over time through engineering has been to get water out of an area as quick as possible,” he said. “When streams have nice bends and curves, there are more places like pools and riffles that create more unique spaces and habitats.”

Another issue in Mitchell Creek, for example, is that the banks of the stream are eroding out, Steen said.

“They’re eroding out probably because after a storm water is coming through here really fast,” he said. “To restore them, you can try to get some native plantings going on or put structures in the water that act as deflectors to push the water away from banks and stop the erosion.”