June 19, 2005


Watchers protect watersheds

Helpers cite threats, push for policies

By Martha Cheo
For the Poughkeepsie Journal

We all know how important water is, having learned in grade school our bodies are made up of about 75 percent water and that water cycles through the land, living things and atmosphere around us. But we often take water for granted.

We often don't think our actions on the land affect our rivers, lakes and streams. We don't consider that when it rains, the water "washes" the residue from all our activities into our waterways, particularly in urban areas where once-permeable earth is now covered with pavement. In these areas, water flows directly into rivers via storm drain pipes, carrying sediment and pollution off our roofs, driveways, parking lots and roads. And what about all those sewage treatment plants that discharge sewage hopefully cleaned and treated directly into streams? And what about all those things we eat, buy and use every day? Pesticides, fertilizer, industrial waste there's a lot taxing our waters.

Fortunately for all of us water users and abusers, there are people who "think like a watershed," and get to know their local rivers. Citizen volunteers have learned the science of assessing the health of streams and the politics of how to keep them in good shape. These "river watchers" have helped clean up pollution, identify threats to stream health and inspire politicians to pass laws protecting waters.

"Residents and fishermen and women, acting as stewards of their water resources, have provided the oversight and information that led to the improvement of several egregious water quality violations," said David Burns, watershed coordinator for the Dutchess County Environmental Management Council. "In the Wappinger Creek, they identified a failing septic system that was leaking directly into the creek. In the Fishkill Creek Streamwalk Program, they identified several areas where sewer lines were either cracked or overflowing into the creek."

Some other examples:

  • Every year, Poughkeepsie High School science teacher Patsy Cicala opens his students' eyes to the Fallkill Creek, which flows through urban Poughkeepsie. They study a number of indicators of stream health and use state-of-the-art computer mapping software to study the creek. This year, they mapped the storm drains that empty into the creek. Now, these students truly understand how their rooftops and sidewalks are a part of their watershed.

    Cicala and his students also joined up with Marist College students and neighbors to remove several tons of garbage from the Fallkill, including 3.5-tons of recyclable metals.

    "Even people walking down the street became inspired to join the effort that day," Cicala said.

  • Mitch Manzo's students at Roy C. Ketcham High School keep an eye on the health of Wappinger Creek and Sprout Creek each year by collecting and analyzing bugs and worms called macroinvertebrates, and measuring dissolved oxygen, nitrate, phosphate and pH levels. According to their results, the Sprout Creek seems to be in better shape than Wappinger.

  • Angela Robbins, a student at New Paltz High School, assessed the level of a common antibiotic (tetracycline) in the Wallkill River. Probable sources of antibiotics in rivers include wastes from those creatures who take such drugs humans and farm livestock. Robbins tested water upstream and downstream of the Village of New Paltz's sewage treatment plant. She also tested water from the sewer lines before it was treated. Her results indicated the plant removed some, but not all, of the tetracycline.

    Why test rivers for antibiotics? Because of the widespread use of antibiotics, disease-causing bacteria are becoming resistant to the drugs. There is concern bacteria in rivers can become resistant as well. Because this is a new field, there is little knowledge about the effects this can have on aquatic ecosystems.

  • "Black Dirt" farmers in Orange County are helping with a study to determine where all the sediment in the Wallkill River originates in their highly erodible and fertile farming region. They diligently collect sediment-laden water samples from the river every time a significant storm hits the area (since that's when the sediment hits the water). The study is sponsored and designed by the Department of Environmental Conservation and coordinated by the Orange County Soil and Water Conservation District.

There are many other examples, including third- and sixth-graders from the Vails Gate School studying the Moodna Creek in Newburgh, volunteers working with government to protect the Plattekill Creek in Saugerties and high school students in Kingston developing a management plan for the lower Esopus Creek. There are many opportunities to get involved protecting these and other streams in the Hudson Valley.

Martha Cheo is the mid-Hudson coordinator for Hudson Basin River Watch.

Trainings offered

Hudson Basin River Watch will be a part of two upcoming trainings:

  • Martha Cheo will present the science curricula she developed for students in the Fishkill Creek Watershed focusing on earth science and biology at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday during the Dutchess County Environmental Management Council meeting. David Burns, the council's watershed coordinator, will also make a presentation about the recently completed management plan for the Fishkill.

    The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Farm and Home Center, Route 44 in Millbrook. Call 845-677-5253 ext. 126.

  • An in-depth Stream Bioassessment Institute will be held Aug. 15-19 in the Adirondacks in Warren County. Besides assessing stream health, this training will cover how to design a stream study, understand state water quality law, analyze data and use your research to promote responsible land-use decisions, protect water quality and preserve the environment.

    The cost is $600. Contact Kelly Nolan, Hudson Basin River Watch, HBRW capitol region coordinator at HBRW@worldnet.att.net

How to help

Many people, agencies and organizations can help those who want to become "river watchers." Hudson Basin River Watch is one. It offers literature, training and staff to help volunteers help their local streams.

Contact Director Doug Reed at reed@netheaven.com, go to www.hudsonbasin.org or call 1-518-677-5029.

Copyright 2005, Poughkeepsie Journal. Reprinted with Permission.
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