If you want to know if the water’s any good, ask the bugs.
It’s why an array of environmentally conscious organizations and school-aged helpers were wading into the mud in the South Fork of Catoctin Creek on Saturday. At a water monitoring demonstration organized by Amie Ware and Nature Generation, they lowered a yellow net into the stream, sieved the burbling creek, rubbed creepy-crawlies off the rocks on the bottom, and counted what they found.
“It’s not completely clear to me what the best way to monitor water quality is, because water flows,” said volunteer stream monitor Sarah Ali. From one moment to the next, conditions in streams change—storms can bring influxes of runoff, or drought conditions can bring water levels down. And there are many measures of stream health: gauging the amount of e. coli bacteria, phosphates, oxygenation, or a variety of other tools.
“The reason the critters are seen as sort of the best proxy for water quality right now is, even if you have those big events like a storm, those critters are still there, surviving or not,” Ali said. Some creatures—like caddisflies and stoneflies—are more sensitive to pollution, acting like canaries in the coal mine. Others—like leeches, flatworms, and midges—are hardy to polluted waters. By counting the number of different types of species, monitors can get an idea of the overall health of the stream.
Volunteer stream monitors across Loudoun and across the state use a testing protocol set out by the Izaak Walton League’s Save Our Streams program to get reliable data over years and track the changing health of the streams. The data they collect are also sent to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to target particular streams for cleanup.
Ali said events like Saturday’s are also a great way to pique children’s natural scientific curiosity.
“The thing about kids is their innocence and just natural curiosity, identifying and sorting,” Ali said. “Children just naturally like to identify and sort things, and that is actually the basic principal of scientific research.”
And they were. Kids at the stream cleanup were excited to splash in the water, and appeared rapt as they sorted through the muck accumulated on the net with tweezers to pick out the bugs. While doing it, they learned about biology, ecology, and got a glimpse of how the water that falls on the ground, the water in the stream, the living things in both are all connected to the water they drink.
The day brought together a variety of people, like Loudoun County Public Schools energy education specialist John Lord, who taught kids how much energy goes into purifying water by having them use a hand-pump filter.
Ali, who was not less fascinated than the kids, got into it when she moved to Leesburg from New York.
“I love the sound of water, it’s that simple,” she said. “I love the sound of bubbling brook. I’ve grown up in New York, and I never had streams around me. Then I moved to Leesburg, and literally 300 feet behind my house is Goose Creek.”
Her kids have grown up playing in the stream. Somewhere she heard about stream monitoring, which got her wondering about the health of the stream in which her kids are playing.
“I started to realize that, wow, that’s amazing that right behind my house is this world of critters that may or may not survive, and whether they survive determines the quality of the water that my kids play in,” she said.
‘Everything Flows…into the Stream’
Ali’s own yard is a microcosm of the struggle to keep streams healthy. Her homeowners association requires that a certain amount of her yard be grass. But grass provides less filtration than other types of groundcover, and keeping grass alive and weed-free means watering and using chemicals.
“My plan was to hand-weed and over-seed and try ways where I didn’t have to use weed killer and chemicals, and I found that I was not able to do it,” Ali said. “I can tell you right now that I’ve got some sort of lawn company that still comes to my front lawn and pours that junk on there, and I hate it.”
And everything winds up in the water.
“People don’t understand the word ‘watershed’ generally,” said Piedmont Environmental Council field staffer Gem Bingol, who also helped out at the event. “They use it to describe the area next to the stream more often than not, when it’s everything that runs in a geographic land area. Everything flows eventually into the stream.”
It’s not an abstract impact. Loudoun’s creeks empty into the Potomac River—where utilities from Fairfax County, Town of Leesburg, and soon Loudoun County draw their water to filter and send right back into homes. In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that for every dollar spent on protecting sources of water like Loudoun’s creeks, an average of $27 is saved on water treatment.
“We have two streams that enter the Potomac just above the intake, so those impacts are quick,” Bingol said. “What we do here affects the drinking water. What people do in their yards affects the drinking water.”
She said Loudoun’s streams have suffered from the county’s rapid growth.
“When you build developments, what happens is you take the natural vegetation or the old farmland, strip it off, and change the way the water rolls off the land naturally,” Bingol said. With concrete, pavement, grass, and storm sewers, there’s less plant matter between the rainfall and the streams, meaning no filtering whatever the rainwater picks up on the ground.
But the good news is that some of Loudoun’s streams are actually doing better. University of Maryland environmental policy student John McGhee analyzed data collected by The Nature Generation, the Town of Purcellville, and Loudoun County about the South Fork of Catcotin Creek.
“Over time, the creek has become more diverse,” McGhee concluded. “There have been a lot more organisms that have made their homes in at least the South Fork Catoctin area, and where there are more organisms, that means that it’s healthier.”
He says that may be attributable to the stream recovering from the impacts of nearby construction, and from the efforts of The Nature Generation volunteers who go down the stream to weed out invasive plants.
According to data collected by the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, across the county, streams in the west—like Catoctin Creek and the Crooked Run—have been healthy or improving, while streams in Leesburg and the east, like Tuscarora Creek and the Broad Run have shown poor water quality that is only declining.
As to helping out at home, Bingol said there are some bigger changes—like composting and moving away from grass lawns at homes and fencing cattle away from streams on farms—to simple things, like picking up after pets, or even turning the gutter spout away from the driveway into the yard.
Ali said the key is changing attitudes among HOAs and neighbors.
“That would be the next step for a person like me, who really did want to improve water,” she said.