Nine Years of Water Testing

Water Test Procedure

  1. At home, do the sodium thiosulfate test. Check kit for equipment and data sheets.
  2. At the dock, hang the thermometer out of the sun to take air temperature.
  3. Complete the front of the data sheet.
  4. Use the secchi disk to record water clarity and water depth.
  5. Use the bucket to collect a water sample. Place it on the dock, preferably out of the sun.
  6. Record air temperature and put thermometer in the bucket to test water temperature.
  7. Begin dissolved oxygen test: add the first two chemicals and then let the precipitate settle.
  8. While it’s settling, record water temperature and complete the ph test.
  9. Complete the DO test.
  10. Do the salinity test.
  11. Check all recorded data, especially tidal stage.
  12. Complete rest of form. Sign.

This is the procedure I have been following for the almost 200 water tests I have done at this same spot on Morris Creek. My data is available online. Yesterday, I attended the bi-annual recertification workshops where they review procedures and issue new equipment and chemicals. We were definitely the veterans in the room and a woman was assigned to our group who didn’t even have a test kit. I found myself teaching her how to do things including the tips and techniques I have picked up over the last nine years of water testing. These are things that may or may not be recorded in the official manual such as looking upwards through the water to read the hydrometer or tapping your do sample bottle against the side of the bucket and then capping it underwater. And, I learned some tips yesterday such as turning the sample bottle upside down once it’s out of the water to look for air bubbles. I did that today when I did my test and hope to remember to add it to my procedure.

In all the talk of adult learning over the past month, I haven’t really thought about this water testing that I do. We learned about the program at a fair at York River State Park not soon after we had bought the property. I remember I was looking for some kind of volunteer opportunity and this seemed perfect. I really can’t remember how I learned to do it…we must have gone to training at some point, but I really just can’t remember. Over the years, we’ve learned more as we’ve attended the recertification workshops, and I understand much more about the science than I used to. When I took statistics, I went to the online database and downloaded data from different water monitoring sites mostly as practice for using SPSS but also to try out some interpretation. Mostly, I discovered that things in the Bay really haven’t changed despite all the environmental work that’s been done.

In this case, the nature of learning has been one of accrual. We learned the original technical skills, which we have continued to hone over the years. (I am particularly good at filling dissolved oxygen sample bottles but it took me time to learn the technique.) But we have also learned about larger, more social issues. For instance, in the summer when the water is warmer, the dissolved oxygen goes down. If it gets below 5 or 6 parts per thousand, fish die. I’ve found do charts of the Chesapeake Bay from past summers where large sections are colored red, indicating that the oxygen has dropped below acceptable levels. These are dead zones.

While I don’t do fecal coliform testing, I do know that my creek is on the Department of Environmental Quality’s impaired list because of it. At least one person has told us that this can be from naturally occuring causes (ie, beavers and deer), but the former James Riverkeeper was convinced it was from agricultural pollution at the headwaters of the creek.

Doing the water testing has also made me just more generally aware of the creek and the marshes that it supports. For instance, one summer small white worms invaded the marsh and chewed all the leaves of the arrowhead and pickerel weed. That year, we had a bumper crop of wild rice and cattails. We have not seen the worms since and the various plants seemed to have reached a balance. During Hurricane Floyd, a section of the bank near our dock collapsed and created a high spot that has filled in with different plant species than we had seen before including cardinal flower and jewel weed. I probably would have noticed all of this without water testing, but doing the test requires that twice a month all year round, I take a good look.

This summer, as part of training I arranged for science teachers in a school division in West Virginia, I invited that state’s stream monitoring coordinator to come and speak to the group. The first thing he talked about was the importance of observation. In fact, since his program is so poorly funded, getting chemicals to be able to do the kind of monitoring I’m doing is very difficult, so they rely a lot on observation of the flora and fauna.

As I finish this posting, I am going to put the NEO down and sit back in my chair for a bit and just watch. There is a breeze today which provides a soundtrack and also discourages boaters. Some trees are just starting to show the signs of fall with red leaves peeking out amongst the green. As I did the test, a great blue heron stalked a nearby marsh. It is indeed beautiful and worthy of some quiet meditation before continuing my work.

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