In my last post, I mentioned that my job started right in the middle of winter bug collections, providing a fantastic opportunity to crisscross the state, visiting streams and meeting volunteers. The beginning of my time here also gave me the chance to attend three different Blue Thumb volunteer trainings, another integral part of what we accomplish across the state through the work of our dedicated and inspiring volunteers.
Late January saw the Blue Thumb staff assembled in a classroom at Oklahoma City University. A large group of potential new volunteer monitors arrived for the training, quite a few of them already working in an environmental or educational profession. During that training, I had the chance to experience it as a volunteer, going through the process in the same way the volunteers do (and will soon begin monitoring the creek that we visited during the training!). A second training happened in February in Pawhuska and was attended by members of the Osage Nation, as well as members of other tribes and the local community. It was especially exciting to see the number of young people who attended the training who were interested in getting involved in protecting the environment. Quite a few young people also attended the third training, in Beaver in early March, which gave me a chance to visit the panhandle for the first time.
Two-day training sessions like these are an outstanding way for local citizens to become involved in their community by working alongside Blue Thumb to monitor and educate about a local stream. The volunteers are our eyes and ears on a stream and also the way we spread our message of stream protection through education across the state. One of the goals of the training is to empower people to protect their stream by educating about it in their town or region; whether in schools, local community events such as Earth Day or Natural Resource Days, presentations to local service clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis, exhibits at the local public library, tables in front of Walmart, or just about anything else they can come up with. We couldn’t do it without them.
An informal icebreaker gets things started on day one of training and gives everyone the chance to meet and get to know each other a bit. After that, we provide the volunteers with a presentation that introduces them to Blue Thumb and what we do. It also gives them an idea of some key concepts that they’ll be thinking about in relation to their stream and fills them in on how, exactly, their work could directly impact the health of the creek they monitor. Presentations led by Blue Thumb staff cover safety concerns related to creek monitoring and the data sheet that volunteers fill out when they visit their creek. During most of the first day, attendees are introduced to some of the educational tools and activities that they can utilize to teach others about water quality, pollution, runoff and other issues. Usually included are a demonstration of an Enviroscape model, a rainfall simulator and a fun and educational Project WET activity.
The first half of day two may arguably be the most fun part of the training, as we take the entire group of volunteers out to a local creek to demonstrate the kind of work they will be doing. Depending on how many staff members are present, how many volunteers there are, and what the creek is like, we may split into smaller groups. Each group gets to participate in a macroinvertebrate collection (bug kicking) and using a seine to look for fish, just like at our summer fish collections. Groups are then instructed on how to do the only part of the chemical tests that must be done creek-side, preparing a sample of water to be tested later for dissolved oxygen. We also cover the monitoring data sheet and the procedure for testing the water’s clarity.
Others would argue that it’s actually the second part of the day that’s the most fun, when volunteers get to conduct the other chemical tests. These tests for dissolved oxygen, nitrate/nitrite, orthophosphate, chloride, pH, and ammonia are conducted every month by volunteers. During the training, they get to go through and complete each test, with the help of Blue Thumb staff members. It’s a lot of fun and a great introduction to the kind of easy and exciting chemistry that volunteers can do at home with their creek water. The results are immediate and sometimes surprising, giving everyone a chance to see firsthand and discuss the quality of the creek we all just visited.
Blue Thumb trainings are completely free of charge, open to all, and are great for teachers, middle and high school students, landowners, retirees, professionals, 4-H leaders and members, or anyone with an interest in clean water! Check our website and Facebook page for future training dates. We hope to see you at one soon!
Blue Thumb’s goal of monitoring streams to make sure they’re healthy is accomplished with a three-pronged approach, biological, chemical and physical. Most important among these is biological monitoring, achieved through summer fish collections and twice-a-year collecting of creek-dwelling bugs. I was lucky enough to start my new job right in the middle of the winter bug collection season. This has given me the chance to crisscross the state with Kim, Candice and Jeri, meeting volunteers and visiting a wide variety of creeks, in both rural and urban settings. It’s been an adventure and an opportunity to learn something new every day as I’ve discovered the diversity of the towns, people and waterways of our region. I’ve gotten to visit Lawton, Tahlequah, Tulsa, Norman and many other communities during our quest to find the benthic macroinvertebrates living at the bottom of creeks and streams.
What is a benthic macroinvertebrate, you ask? The word “benthic” means “of, relating to, or occurring at the bottom of a body of water” (the lowest level of a body of water is known as the “benthic zone”). Micro is a well-known term, meaning tiny or extremely small. Macro is the opposite, meaning large in scale or scope. It’s something we can see with our naked eye, without the help of something like a microscope. And finally, invertebrates are any creatures without a backbone. So, benthic macroinvertebrates are species that live at the bottom of a creek or stream which have no backbone and are large enough that we can see them with the naked eye.
The next question you might ask is, why are they so important? Benthic macroinvertebrates are important indicators of the health of a steam and the quality of its water. This is due in part to the fact that some species can live in degraded, polluted waters, while others cannot. When we collect these diverse bugs, we are looking for and hoping to find those species that can only survive in clean, unpolluted waters. If there are many of them, and a diversity of types, it’s a good sign that the water is likely to be healthy. On the other hand, if we are not finding those intolerant species and only collect bugs that are very tolerant of pollution, it may be an indication of something deteriorating the quality and health of the water and the habitat it provides.
These species are also excellent indicators of that habitat’s health because they spend most or all of their lives in one place and cannot easily escape pollution, unlike fish, for example, who can swim away. Over time, generations of these creatures provide a long-term view of the stream, unlike the momentary snapshot of a one-time chemical test of the water. As we observe how the bug populations change with time, including population density and diversity, we can discover how the stream as a whole is changing.
Along with our volunteers, we find spots in the creek where there’s a riffle, a shallow section of the stream where the water is flowing rapidly over the rocks, gravel, sand, etc. Downstream of the riffle, one person holds a kick net with one end wide open to catch as much as possible in the net as water flows in. The other particpants then stand in the riffle and kick up as much of the stream bottom as they can. This disturbance of the creek bottom causes all of those tiny creatures living on and under the rocks, sticks, leaves, etc. to get caught up in the current and flow right into our waiting net.
We do this three times, in three different spots, preferably three areas with some variety to them, perhaps in the velocity of the water or the type of material on the creek bottom. After each kicking, the sample is gathered into a bucket so that it can be combined. A portion of that then goes into a mason jar and preserved in alcohol until we can pick through the sample at a later date. The entire process is fun and fascinating and a great way for volunteers to get an even better idea of their stream’s health. They can see for themselves just how much life is actually in their stream and how diverse that life is (or isn’t). These bugs tell us a lot and become an essential and important part of the high-quality data Blue Thumb provides to Oklahoma and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Collecting benthic macroinvertebrates to study water quality has been around for many years and is practiced around the world. The Environmental Protection Agency provides some great information on water quality monitoring - https://www.epa.gov/national-aquatic-resource-surveys/indicators-used-national-aquatic-resource-surveys
Benthic macroinvertebrates are also an important part of freshwater ecosystems and the food chain. Read more about the roles they play in this article from BioScience: