Three Thompson streams test high for water quality

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Thompson - posted Fri., Nov. 1, 2013
Matt Regis and Cheryl Dziura-Duke get ready to collect samples from a stream in Woodstock. Photo by D. Coffey.
Matt Regis and Cheryl Dziura-Duke get ready to collect samples from a stream in Woodstock. Photo by D. Coffey.

A team of Connecticut Audubon Society citizen scientists spent the morning hours of Oct. 19 in the cool waters of a stream bed in Woodstock. They were collecting data that would go to officials at the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District. Both organizations have been gathering critical information on the quality of stream water across the state for years. 

Citizen science coordinator Paula Coughlin walked the stream bed in waders, looking for just the right spots for her team to begin their work. She stationed them where wide riffles churned the water. While one volunteer held a net in the water, another picked rocks from the stream bed and brushed them with a toothbrush. The loosened material flowed into the net. They were looking for macroinveterates, organisms large enough to see with the naked eye. What they found would be important indicators of the health of the stream.

Coughlin and her volunteers have been collecting data for almost 10 years on streams in Woodstock, Pomfret and Thompson. The information is important because watersheds and the streams that flow through them connect one community to another, one watershed to another. The quality of those waters impacts everyone.

Their most recent study of the Quinnatisset, Backwater Brook and Long Branch Brook tributaries that flow into the French River in Thompson was done with funds from a Watershed Assistance Small Grant. Volunteers did stream walks and tested the tributaries for bacteria and nitrates. Their presence would have indicated the need for more physical, biological or chemical testing. Action involving municipal or DEEP authorities might have been called for. But test results showed the streams fell in the excellent and exceptional quality range.

There were no impairments found on stream walks. Eight weeks of river bio-assessment checks were positive with the exception of one day in July when they found high bacteria count. Coughlin attributed it to several days of heavy rain leading up to the test date. They took pictures of a sediment plume from road run-off.  Sediment can change stream conditions drastically. It can change the water temperature, block it, slow it, and clog up the gills of the organisms living there. Fixes might be as simple as the town creating a drainage ditch. But land use, and agricultural and industrial pollution might also need to be addressed.

The data collected in Thompson will go to the town’s Inland Wetlands Commission and wetlands agent Marla Butts. It will also go to DEEP and the ECCD. The information is valuable because DEEP doesn’t have the personnel to do the testing or gather baseline information on smaller streams. “From our baseline data, DEEP and ECCD can look at the information and see if there are issues with the streams. Then they can determine a course of action to take.”

That baseline data comes from committed volunteers like Matthew Regis and Cheryl Dziura-Duke. The work they did in Woodstock was a replica of the work that had been done in Thompson. Regis held a kick net steady while Dziura-Duke brushed off some stones. They collected the loosened material, climbed out of the stream and emptied their net into a 5-gallon tub. Then they began the work of sorting their catch. 

Volunteers used simplified field guides to help them. None of them are entomologists, and that’s the point. CS projects are designed for people who don’t necessarily have a science background. Coughlin put them all through standardized 3-hour training and gave them field practice. “This is basically sorting and matching,” Coughlin said. “But the information they collect is important.” Volunteers across the state use the same equipment, the same protocols, and the same materials. “Everyone in the state is doing the same thing,” Coughlin said.

Regis and Dziura-Duke found a mayfly, a Dobson fly and a water penny. The specimens were put into an ice cube tray for Coughlin to verify. At the end of the session, they’d place them in a voucher container, label them with stream name, town and GPS coordinates, and send them to DEEP. The types of organisms they found would indicate the health of the stream.  

“Some organisms are more sensitive than others,” Coughlin said. “The more sensitive the organism is, the more we want to find it.” Most of the streams in northeastern Connecticut are in rural areas, Coughlin said. Most are in pretty good condition or have been brought back. That’s good because if the baseline data says the stream is good and later testing shows a problem, that’s a red flag that more investigation is needed.

“In addition to collecting valuable data, this work connects volunteers with their communities and environment,” Coughlin said. She and her volunteers have studied water sheds in Canterbury, Pomfret and Woodstock. And she has been encouraged by the reception they’ve received by property owners. “They have been so gracious and conservation-minded. They love the land and sharing their stories. I just had these wonderful conversations that added richness to the project.”

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