Testing the Waters

Wherever waters gather, be it bay or brook, monitors will soon don their hip boots to mark the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Charlottesville resident John Murphy hasn’t yet picked his site, but knows he’ll be somewhere in a "riffle" – the bubbly part of a stream – counting bugs.

Between October 18 and 24, Murphy, an environmental writer and certified volunteer water monitor, will be sampling in the Rivanna watershed as part of a nationwide survey. Virginia’s non-profit Save our Streams and other conservation groups here are also poised to count the catch. When the splash of festivities is over, the resulting "snapshot" of our nation’s waters will be posted on the Year of Clean Water website, www.yearofcleanwater.org.

By and large, the celebration will be catered by the grassroots – volunteers like Murphy who will pitch tables set with utensils such as ice cube trays, magnifiers and tweezers. The untrained will use kits to measure parameters like temperature and pH, or the Secchi disk, a lake science tool that’s been kicking around since 1866, while trained participants are more likely to dip nets and count aquatic bugs. Sensitive to pollutants, their numbers indicate water condition.

Murphy says volunteers are crucial to the quest for clean water. "Public resource management agencies are underfunded," he says. "They can’t possibly do the job." An interest in stream ecology led the 45-year old to train for certification five months ago. In Virginia, some 300 certified monitors draw attention to challenged streams by providing data to the Department of Environmental Quality.

While 40 percent of Virginia’s stream miles are impaired, the damage is concentrated in the heavily urbanized, Northern region. The Rivanna watershed remains relatively healthy. "We’ve got a good thing here," says Murphy, "but we’re concerned about the trend." Accordingto the DEQ, this region’s impaired stream miles doubled between 1998 and 2002.

Since the birth of the Clean Water Act in 1972, says Murphy, "The nation has pursued cleanup of point-source pollution, particularly through wastewater treatment." Today the task is aimed at a more insidious ill: non-point source pollution, that is, a glut of nameless pollutants of anonymous origin. Such damage accounts for most of the state’s impaired waters. Whatever its sources, one response to pollution, suggests Murphy, is the local implementation of buffer zones, or forested strips abutting streams to protect against human impact. The Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, which facilitates buffer zone installation, is supportive of citizen monitoring, he says. "Monitoring data can help them with site selection, and can also help confirm the effectiveness of the buffer."

Next on Murphy’s calendar is the formation of a new, sustained citizen monitoring program. The effort will involve local conservation and resource agencies, and began with the 1997-1998 Rivanna Roundtable, coordinated by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. A monitoring project was initiated then, but soon encountered funding difficulties.

While the Clean Water Act anniversary is a cause to celebrate, the widespread activities might suggest that every stream has its guardian. The truth is, the ratio of monitors to streams leaves most waters unsupervised. Scientists estimate that 75 percent of Virginia’s surface water is of "unknown quality."

Like most volunteers, John Murphy enjoys conducting the outdoor surveys, which he says require "about 6-8 hours a year." Waiting for the picture of a stream’s health to develop, an entire ecosystem comes into focus; its plants and animals, slopes and depths, the rocks and casings housing bug-life.

It’s worth it, Murphy knows, to keep "a good thing" going. The goal: no stone unturned, no organism uncounted, no stream left behind.

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