Water Watchers: volunteers keep eye on health of area streams

Written by David Green.


The morning begins with the flip of a switch. Numbers flash across the screen of a meter that measures dissolved oxygen in water.

It takes about 10 minutes to run through its cycle, so that’s when Janet Kauffman and Kathy Melmoth enjoy a cup of tea and look over the list of sampling sites on their schedule.

Every two weeks, the women pack up the dissolved oxygen (D.O.) meter and a water sample collection kit and head out to visit various streams and drains in Lenawee and Hillsdale counties.

They’re checking the health of area waterways by measuring the oxygen and E. coli bacteria levels. E. coli contamination—usually caused by septic systems and animal manure—is determined by a laboratory in Jackson.do-test

It’s a volunteer effort, although a $7,000 Community Action Grant from the Sierra Club paid for the D.O. meter, and it will cover lab and mileage costs for two years.

“Last summer we didn’t have the D.O. meter, but we decided it was really important,” Kauffman said. “Dissolved oxygen is important for fish. It’s what they breathe.”

Fish, mussels, caddisfly larvae, stonefly larvae—there’s a wide range of aquatic life that needs oxygen to survive. An increased level of organic materials in water can lead to the excessive growth of algea. When the algae die and decompose, bacteria consume a large amounts of oxygen.

With the D.O. meter calibrated, the pair head out toward Toad Creek where it passes under Coman Road.

The women don’t profess to be biologists. They’re just obtaining baseline data to pass on to the public and to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ will soon begin its own study in the Lime Lake area.

“It’s been interesting just to see what turns up,” Kauffman says. “As the E. coli level becomes high, the dissolved oxygen has been low. There’s some correlation.”

As the temperature warms in the summer, D.O. becomes much more of a problem. Levels have mostly remained healthy during the two months they’ve had the meter.

That can’t be said about the E. coli level, however.

“Toad Creek was testing really clean and all of a sudden it’s so high they couldn’t even count it,” Kauffman says.

“There were three sites that came back with readings too numerous to count,” adds Melmoth.

At the lab they’re using, that level is reached when the E. coli count exceeds 40,000 per 100 milliliters of water. The maximum standard for human contact is 1,000.

A closer look

When you start looking at streams and ditches, you begin to notice related details.

“You see the erosion,” Melmoth says, “you see the trees and shrubs torn out, you see the narrower and narrower grass strips.”

Michigan’s Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices—a voluntary set of guidelines for farming—state that manure shouldn’t be placed on a field closer than 150 feet from a stream. Even if manure is injected into the soil, an adequate “vegatative buffer” should run along the stream.

Runoff patterns leading into streams are observed in some fields.

“You see that grass strip?” asks Melmoth on Coman Road. “Does it look like 150 feet?”

It’s actually about 12 feet wide, and at a later stop that morning, the strip measures only about half that size.

“There used to be a lot of trees along the bank here,” Kauffman notes.

She takes the reading from her D.O. meter: 9.8.

“This is the lowest we’ve seen all winter,” she says.

Readings between 5 and 10 are considered normal, although the winter readings are usually in the range of 12 to 13. The minimum water quality standard is 7. At lower levels, aquatic life begins to suffer.

They drive on to where Toad Creek crosses Mulberry Road.

“This is where we saw mussels in the summer,” Melmoth said.

“And this is where we got a ‘too numerous to count’ in February, so we’re going to watch it carefully,” Kauffman adds. “We hope to isolate places that are special problems.”

They head toward Lime Lake to check an inlet. Lime Lake already has its own water quality problems from septic fields, but the volunteer samplers want to know what’s coming into the lake from other sources.

“We added this stream because it was recently flowing green,” says Kauffman.

The D.O. reading is the lowest of the day at 9.4.

A drain on Acker Road recently tested “too numerous” despite looking good, but it’s not all bad news. Fish are spotted in drains on Keil Highway and Culbert Road, and most of the D.O. readings are coming through in good shape.

On the way to St. Joseph Creek on Beecher, the women talk about a DNA test that determines whether an E. coli sample comes from a human, a cow or a pig. It’s an expensive test, but researchers at Purdue are working on a cheaper method.

“If that becomes a simple test to do, that will change everything,” Kauffman says. “If you’re trying to improve water quality, you have to know who to talk to.”

Finally, the eleventh and last sample is taken and the women head home before making the drive to Jackson for lab work.

“This area’s been stable for a long time,” says Melmoth, glancing out the window. “But in the last few years there’ve been a lot of changes. We’re making an attempt to preserve what we have and to monitor the changes.”

Kauffman agrees, but there’s another level of appreciation she’s gained from the project—something that grows with each succeeding trip into the surrounding countryside.

“For me, it’s an education, too,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know what’s here. They don’t know what to protect and they don’t know what there is to lose.”

Not so long ago, she could count herself among those legions, but that’s not the case anymore. Now, she hopes the many hours she’s volunteering with this project will bring others into the fold. She always welcomes more of those who understand what there is to lose.

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