Voices from the river

Voices from the River: Citizen scientists work to protect their home waters

Each week, dozens of volunteers head afield in the East as part of Trout Unlimited’s citizen science efforts.

In the mid-Atlantic region much of the effort has been focused on TU’s shale gas and pipeline monitoring efforts.

Jake Lemon, who heads that program, recently reached out to three dedicated volunteers to find out what drew them to the work

Erin Burch, Harrisonburg, Va.

What is your profession?

I do communication and outreach work for Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, a new nonprofit formed of a merger of four well respected conservation and land use groups in the Shenandoah Valley.

How long have you been involved in TU’s citizen science work?

I started in November 2015, so three years now.

What prompted you to get involved?

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the potential for irreversible stream damage and contamination that could come along with its construction and maintenance prompted me to get involved.

I grew up river-stomping in the streams and rivers that flow through the George Washington National Forest without a thought or care because those waters are about as fresh and pure as it gets. My parents didn’t worry about what was lurking in the water and I want my children and me to enjoy the same freedom.

What is your volunteer role?

I help monitor two sites in Augusta County as a part of a three-person team. Both our sites are downstream from proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline stream crossings. We collect data once a month, usually on a weekend morning for about an hour.

I have enjoyed getting to know our streams and though it will be really tough to watch if ACP construction commences, I am glad to have a solid baseline knowledge of these locations — all seasons, high and low water, after storms and flooding, etc. We’ll know right away if anything is off due to construction activity or lack of proper erosion controls.

The group of volunteers helping TU with this effort is quite diverse. How does it make you feel to know that you’re part of this wide-ranging cross section of citizen scientists?

I feel like the diversity in citizen scientists makes us better equipped to recognize issues as we’re all seeing the same stream through different lenses. More bases are covered that way. On my team, we have someone with benthic knowledge who can read what the stream bugs are saying about the health of the stream. He also lives the most local so has an ear to the ground about what might be going on upstream and downstream at any given time.

Another team member has experience in construction protocol so will be invaluable for recognizing improper activity should construction happen. I am sort of a stickler for accurate and consistent data collection, so hopefully the data will speak clearly if something is out of place.

We all spend lots of time outdoors and can share with each other our knowledge of plants, birds and water life, which makes the experience that much more enjoyable and rewarding.

I think anyone can do citizen science, and that brings an automatic diversity to the team. That diversity and the fact that folks are self-selecting to be involved with something important to them for a multitude of personal reasons is the real power behind citizen science.

Carol Nix, Morgantown, W.Va.

What is your profession?

I am a retired postal carrier, and I still love being outdoors, but thankfully I don’t have to get up early in the morning anymore.

How long have you been involved in TU’s citizen science work?

I have been water monitoring for TU since February 2014.

What prompted you to get involved?

In 2009, nearly 30 miles of Dunkard Creek on the Pennsylvania border experienced a massive fish kill caused by drilling fluids illegally dumped in an old mine.

We all realized that the Marcellus drilling boom could prove a real threat to our water supply, not only because of the industry’s demand for fresh water but also from the fracking wastewater which each well produces.

As giant pipelines are now laid under pristine streams and through steep terrains, there’s great potential for disasters large and small. These pipelines will also eventually vastly increase the number of producing wells.

I just wanted to be able to record baseline data for the small clean stream that borders my place, and I am grateful that the TU program offers me a way to record and document my observations. There are so many greedy and careless people who just don’t appreciate how fragile our ecosystem and how precious our water.

Please describe your volunteer role.

I record temperature, pH, conductivity and cross-sectional volume on my site about every two weeks, winter and summer. It’s a pleasant walk to the creek and good exercise and my dog really loves to run along. Sometimes we find animal tracks or scat, or ladyslippers in the spring.

The group of volunteers helping TU with this effort is quite diverse. How does it make you feel to know that you’re part of this wide-ranging cross section of citizen scientists?

Sadly, our West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is really overworked and understaffed. They are wonderful and caring folks, but they can certainly use extra eyes and ears to help watch for unacceptable practices, whether from careless drillers, or carelessly laid pipelines intersecting streams.

I would urge anyone else who’s worried about our future water supply to contact TU and join in. It’s not just for young folks, it’s a way for older retired people to contribute to keeping the planet healthy too.

Kerren Hall, Fayetteville, W.Va.

How did you end up in West Virginia?

I came here from Colorado in 1994 to become a river guide and that is what i still do 25 years later. Since it’s only half-year employment U also work as a teacher’s aide in the county schools with children, another rewarding job that I love.

When did you first get involved with citizen science?

I have been involved with my local watershed organizations for 20 years. Four-and-a-half years ago I got an email from West Virginia Rivers Coalition about stream-testing training. It seemed the perfect way to serve my beloved rivers and pass that love on to the children.

What is your volunteer role?

I started with five streams in my home county (Fayette), testing each once a month. I recruited a friend to take on two of them but wound up picking up another in my area and one in Nicholas County because of the impending pipeline.

It’s a challenge during my busy seasons to visit them all but it’s a joyful challenge. You get so attached to each stream, as if they are people with individual characteristics and beauty which makes the visit to each rewarding.

Besides, driving the back roads of West Virginia is one of my favorite pastimes. I often bring family or friends who enjoy the experience of “car hiking” as much as I do.

What sense of accomplishment does this work give you?

In the end it makes me feel that I am contributing to a bigger cause of caring for the earth and all her majestic waterways. Hearing the other volunteers chime in on the conference calls lets me know I’m not alone in my caring for nature and its vital role in our lives. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity.

By Mark Taylor. A native of rural southern Oregon, Mark Taylor has lived in Virginia since serving a stint as a ship-based naval officer in Norfolk. He joined the TU staff in 2014 after a 20-year run as a newspaper journalist, the final 16 as the outdoors editor of the Roanoke Times. A graduate of Northwestern University, he lives in Roanoke with his wife and, when they're home from college, his twin daughters.