Invertebrate Investigators

by Jon Markovich

In the previous Healthy Waters blog, my colleague Micka Peck wrote about the stream sampling we did for benthic macroinvertebrates. Pulling on a pair of waders and kicking around in the stream sampling was only half the fun.  After the outdoor fieldwork, I changed wardrobe from field gear to lab coat. Ok, I didn’t really wear a lab coat, but I was in a lab processing the preserved macroinvertebrates for later identification.

It’s been established that macroinvertebrates are good indicators of water quality conditions. Identifying which macroinvertebrates are present in a stream sample provides a link to determining whether a stream has good water quality and supports a healthy aquatic community.

One sample collected from a stream can have hundreds, even thousands, of macroinvertebrates. Thankfully, my target was to process a small sub-sample – around 200 individuals. This involves spreading the entire sample onto a gridded pan, randomly selecting a grid and removing all materials within it, and “picking” through the leaves, dirt, gravel, and other debris to separate out macroinvertebrates. At times, it felt as though I was playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?” In this case, “Waldo” could have no tails, two tails, or three tails, gills or no gills, or a whole number of different features. Sorting through these samples is no joke – it takes serious skill to quickly pick out bugs from non-bug debris. But after they’ve been picked from the sub-samples, the macroinvertebrates are identified under a microscope.

Looking under the scope, I marveled at these creatures. The different features and shapes of each bug were jaw-dropping. One bug, a burrowing mayfly in the family Ephemeridae, has protruding tusks on the side of its mouth like an elephant. The tusks help this family of mayfly to burrow into soft sediment to feed. Another bug, a dragonfly in the family Aeshnidae, had a hinged-mouth that extended to be nearly half the length of its body! Dragonfly larvae are predatory and this super-extendable mouthpart allows them to quickly snap up prey. These kinds of distinguishing features and characteristics are what scientists look at under the microscope for macroinvertebrate identification.

Although they look way cooler under a microscope, you don’t need one to see macroinvertebrates. If you have the chance, go check out your local stream, flip over rocks and search the stream bottom. You too could become an invertebrate investigator!

 

About the Author: Jon Markovich joined EPA’s Water Protection Division in 2014 and works in the impaired waters and Total Maximum Daily Load programs. In his spare time, Jon enjoys hiking, kayaking and camping in the Mid-Atlantic Region’s many great state parks.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

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Stream Critters Reveal Much About Water Quality

by Micka Peck

I was never a huge ‘bug person’ as a kid. It wasn’t that I bolted in terror at the sight of anything crawling my direction, but I didn’t greet a dangling spider with much enthusiasm either. My little brother, on the other hand, loved running through fields of tall grass in search of massive grasshoppers and butterflies. So, it may have come as a surprise to my family when a colleague and I eagerly set off to West Virginia in search of benthic macroinvertebrates, or the bottom-dwelling stream critters that lack backbones and are visible to the naked eye. Think insects, crayfish, worms, mussels, etc.

A couple of things piqued my interest about these creatures. I had learned that benthic macroinvertebrates are a crucial indicator for understanding water quality. While a single “grab sample” from a stream can tell you something about its water quality at that moment, macroinvertebrates are exposed to a range of conditions throughout their life stages in water. Therefore, they more accurately represent long-term conditions of water quality. Some macroinvertebrates are very sensitive to pollutants and as the water quality worsens, are less prevalent. All of our Region 3 states rely on macroinvertebrates to assess whether a waterbody is supporting aquatic life, so I thought I should go see what all the fuss was about.

We arrived at the stream bank in waders toting buckets, scrub brushes, and a large net. After surveying the stream, we chose a few spots with fast moving water and a variety of rocks and cobble, which are popular habitats due to their shelter from predators. With the net placed on the streambed facing upstream, I grabbed the scrub brush, brushed the rocks and let any attached macroinvertebrates float into the net. Next, I kicked the rocks in front of the net to stir up any macroinvertebrates hiding underneath and let the water guide them into the net. At times, it looked like I was dancing the twist in the middle of the stream. Then, I dumped the contents in the net into a bucket and marveled at the bounty. It was teeming with crayfish, scuds, larvae of mayflies, stoneflies, dragonflies, and so much more. And now, rather than feeling ambivalent, I’m filled with a sense of childish wonder at the many surprises a stream may hold.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – in the lab!

 

About the Author: Micka Peck is a physical scientist in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region working on improving impaired waters through total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), or water quality improvement plans.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Triathletes get an assist from the Clean Water Act

 

by Elizabeth Gaige

Ohio River IRONMAN swimmers

Ohio River IRONMAN swimmers

My husband’s passion for the sport of triathlon began in the Schuylkill River, when we both competed – swimming, biking, and running – in the 2012 Philly Triathlon. Part of the draw of triathlon is the opportunity to swim in lakes and rivers – like the Schuylkill – that aren’t usually open to recreational swimmers for safety reasons.

Although our family and friends didn’t understand why we enjoyed our Schuylkill swim, it was simple – this part of the race was calm and beautiful, with a small current providing some free speed. And, we had peace of mind even in the middle of a grueling race, because the Philadelphia Water Department RiverCast website gave us vital information about river conditions.

The author and her husband, an IRONMAN

The author and her husband, an IRONMAN

After the Philly Tri, my husband chose to make IRONMAN Louisville his first full distance IRONMAN race – 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and a 26.2 mile marathon run. But, as we packed the car for his race, advisories from the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection appeared on social media and we realized the race that might only include two of three parts that the athletes had trained for.

A harmful algal bloom had formed on the Ohio River between Ohio and West Virginia weeks earlier and the effects of elevated toxins produced by the algae were being evaluated hundreds of miles downstream. Elevated nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, warm sunny days and slower-moving water fuel algal growth.  Fortunately, October’s cooler temperatures and precipitation began to flush algae and toxins from the Ohio River. To the relief of many hopeful triathletes, the recreational advisory for the swim course was lifted days before the race as multiple water quality test results showed toxins falling below Kentucky’s threshold.

On race day, 2,300 triathletes experienced first-hand the “swimmable” part of the Clean Water Act’s goals. I welcomed my Ironman at the finish line 13 hours and 52 minutes after he jumped into the Ohio River, thankful that the Clean Water Act is there to protect the nearly half-million triathletes that count on safe water for swimming at thousands of events each year.

 

About the Author: Elizabeth Gaige works in EPA’s Air Protection Division in Philadelphia.  She has completed 88 races since 2003, 16 of which involved open water swimming!

 

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

When It Comes to Water, We Are All Close Neighbors

By MJ Eggers, MJ Lefthand, SL Young, JT Doyle and A Plenty Hoops, with contributions from  other team members: UJ Bear Don’t Walk, A Bends, B Good Luck, L Kindness, AKHG McCormick, DL Felicia, E Dietrich, TE Ford, and AK Camper.

Little Big Horn river

Little Big Horn River, Montana. Photo by John Doyle.

Until the 1960s, many families on the Crow Reservation still hauled river water for home use, a practice most of us remember from our childhoods.  As agriculture expanded and river water quality visibly deteriorated, wells and indoor plumbing became available and rural families switched to home well water.

In many parts of the Reservation, this was a hardship, not a blessing: the groundwater tapped for home wells is high in total dissolved solids and often so rich in iron and manganese that it’s undrinkable. The hard water build-up or “scale” also ruins hot water heaters. We have learned that the majority of home wells (55%) have water that presents a health risk, due to mineral or microbial contamination or both.

As a country, we may imagine our citizens have universal access to safe drinking water—but for millions of rural residents with poor quality well water, and who can’t afford cisterns, treatment systems, or all the bottled water they might want—this simply is not the case.  In our communities, people are cooking with poor tasting, contaminated water, and living with the health consequences.

In 2004, Tribal members who were—and still are—passionate about and dedicated to addressing community-wide water quality issues and health disparities joined forces as the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee. They recruited academic partners and Little Big Horn College science majors to help.

We have been working together to research what is contaminating local groundwater and surface waters, what the health risks are from domestic, cultural, and recreational uses of these water sources, and how best to educate the community about the risks.

Archival image of Crow women getting water from river

Crow women getting water for camp from the Little Big Horn River, close to present day Crow Agency, Crow Reservation, Montana. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian (N13758). Photo by Fred E. Miller.

One challenge is that various traditional practices involve respectfully consuming (untreated) river and spring water right from the source. Maintaining these cultural practices “is part of what makes us Crow,” so, instead of expecting people to simply give them up, we are collaborating with the Tribe on pursuing additional funding opportunities to address the pollution sources affecting our rivers and a culturally-important spring.  We are also helping to make clear that traditional uses of river water, including drinking it untreated, need to be considered in planning, risk assessments, and policy decisions.

We are working to restore the health of our rivers and of our community.  We realize it takes passion, commitment, mutual support and a broad-based, grassroots effort.  We have learned that we are all close neighbors when it comes to water.  How we treat our water is the respect we show to our neighbors, and how we would want them to treat us.

About the Authors: MJ Lefthand, SL Young and JT Doyle are members of the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee (CEHSC). The Committee is made up of Crow Tribal members with varied expertise in environmental science, water resources, health, law and culture. MJ Eggers is an academic partner from Little Big Horn College and Montana State University Bozeman.   A Plenty Hoops works for the Crow Tribal Environmental Protection Program.  Additional contributors are members of the CEHSC, academic partners or student interns.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.