With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Meredith Miller is a senior program coordinator at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. Miller studies a variety of topics including water conservation, watershed protection, endangered species habitats and instream flows. She also oversees the Center's citizen science program.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: Can you talk to me generally about this “Texas Stream Team”? Who is on the team and what is their goal?
Meredith Miller: Our goal is to reach however many people we can every year and to teach them about pollution, about water quality, about environmental protection and restoration, those kinds of things. The other goal is to collect data through a process called citizen science and to have that data and the resources that come from it, also again, available to everybody, to all Texans.
Some of our data is used by municipalities, some of it is used by private organizations. Some of it is used by the government to basically have a better understanding of what is going on with our water resources. Part of that is you also form an early warning system for rivers, streams, lakes, bayous and bays across the state.
So that’s our last goal and we do that in a number of ways. The first, like I said, is education and outreach. We have a very small staff but we work with partner organizations across the state. We have dozens and dozens of partners and they can be anybody from a master-naturalist club to a major council of governance to a municipality.
We have all different kinds of partners and so we basically provide them with information and resources to be able to empower and educate their citizens. ... We have about 500 volunteers across the state, and that number is always ebbing and flowing, but about 500 folks across the state who go out and monitor water quality and environmental quality at different locations.
That is really the stream team — the network of partnerships I mentioned, but also the network of trained citizen scientists who are going out into the field and collecting this data and making observations about the environment that can then benefit a whole number of folks.
Trib+Water: How is this team selected? Do people have to apply? Once they’re selected, do you put them through training or do they have to be qualified before hand?
Miller: No, no. We have everybody from kindergartners to grandparents on the team. The only qualification is that you be interested and that you want to do it. We even have different programs.
We just had somebody hit his 80th birthday and he didn’t want to go out and monitor on the side of a river anymore, which I understand, but he’s going to be doing training for us now. There is no criteria other than interest.
If someone is interested, you just get in touch with somebody on my staff or me and we will say, “Oh, you’re in Dallas? Well, Rick is our partner in Dallas who we work with and he’s doing a training and February so we’ll get you signed up with him.”
Or maybe there isn’t a training. For instance, one of our partners in Fredericksburg called and said, “We’re super busy so we can’t squeeze in a training but we have a lot of interest.” And we say, “Okay great,” and we send a staff person out there. We do that all year long, all around the state.
Trib+Water: How does it impact the quality of your research and data collection to have so many people in so many different locations with so many different levels of knowledge and experience contributing to this?
Miller: It is a challenge. One of the things that often happens in this industry, for lack of a better term, citizen sciences are often discounted because it gets the quotation marks because it’s “not real science” or it’s “not quality.” But we have a really strict quality assurance policy.
First, we train everybody. We like for them to go out as teams so they can sort of quality assure themselves. They enter their data either into a database, in which case all of that data is run through and literally my staff lays eyes on all of it.
So there is a really strong quality assurance process and we work with every single one of those 500 folks every year at least once a year to say, “Hey, lets go over your methodology again. Lets make sure that all of your chemicals and everything in your water quality margin is perfectly calibrated and working A-OK.”
We have YouTube videos, we have tests, we have all sorts of things that make sure that that data is of quality and then we’ll also take a lot of time to compare that data to existing, professionally collected data.
Trib+Water: Can you talk to me about some of the specific things that people are out monitoring everyday?
Miller: We have all these different levels of monitoring. First is what we call a core water quality monitoring sweep. And these are things like temperature, pH, conductivity and dissolved oxygen, clarity and also then also some environmental factors.
Are they noticing that there is a lot of erosion or bio foam on the water? That’s what most of our citizen scientists do. We also have an advanced “suite” where they monitor things like bacteria, E. coli and different nutrients: nitrogen phosphorus, those types of things.
Those are really important for watershed protection planning efforts across the state. ... We also have a bunch of newer programs that we’ve just launched. One of them is called a riparian assessment. Basically it’s the idea that the area next to the river, or lake or whatever it may be, has a real impact on water quality. If you have this very degraded, dirt all the way to the edge of the river and no plant life, it’s not going to be good habitat. It’s not good for the environment, not good for water quality.
So our volunteers can rate and track that information on what’s a healthy riparian ecosystem on the banks of the river versus what’s not.
And then we also have what’s called a bio-monitoring program that we just launched. Those folks … collect aquatic insects … From the different types of insects that they’re capturing, we can tell if there’s only one type of insect, then we know, “there’s a problem here, it’s not very diverse.” We can tell a lot about the water quality as well and the habitat quality by this bio-assessment.
Trib+Water: Have there been any really surprising discoveries made by any of these citizen scientists?
Miller: Probably our most famous is a creek outside of Dallas called Pigs Blood Creek, a lovely name. It’s down the street from a slaughterhouse, as you can imagine. At one point they were doing some illicit discharges, meaning they were discharging things into the creek that they weren’t supposed to and a stream team member noticed the E. coli rates went through the roof one month and he sort of thought it was a fluke.
When it happened the second month and he turned in his data, he called and he said, “Hey, Stream Team, something is going on here.” And we were able to alert TCEQ and Texas Parks and Wildlife and other state officials and they were able to determine that this particular slaughterhouse was indeed polluting the creek and really driving up E. coli levels.
Another example, there was a local distillery that makes a very famous Texas vodka and it turns out that they weren’t aware that they were creating a problem, but they were discharging some water that they used in their distillery and treatment process.
We were able to compare a Stream Team site upstream and basically isolate the area where the problem was. Occasionally we get a really awesome success story.
Trib+Water: So what does the next year look like for you guys? What are some projects you’re going to work on down the line?
Miller: We have a ton of new stuff coming online in the next year. We’re launching a new scuba diving program, so we’ll be working with people who are recreational scuba divers to collect water quality information .
The neat thing about that is that most of our monitoring is collecting water at the surface. They may be dipping a bucket down a few feet, but they’re not 30 feet or 50 feet or 100 feet down.
Maybe things are going on below the surface that we don’t really know about. So it’s going to be interesting to see if we can get more of a comprehensive picture.
Another program that we are launching is an angler program. We’re going to be working with fishermen and women because they are out in the environment anyway and … they know when something happens in a particular area if they’re not catching fish or the vegetation looks different or the water looks different.
We’re also going to do a pretty big education outreach campaign about litter. So we’ll be having a lot of volunteer events. So maybe you can’t commit to monitoring the same site every month, but you can commit to coming and spending a day here with us collecting data and removing trash.