Who’s Watching the River?

The river once told me “people think I’m dirty”

So they do. So it is.

Many people continue to view the Sangamon River as a ditch that functions primarily to carry away water and drain fields. As a matter of fact, the river truly is quite “dirty.” According to the Illinois DNR, at peak concentration rates, the Sangamon River at Monticello carries away 25,000 tons of topsoil per day. In many ways, the Upper Sangamon River has been an abused and maligned watershed for many years.

However, others view the Upper Sangamon River as an ecological treasure. According to the DNR, the quality of the Sangamon River upstream of Decatur is generally “good”, supporting 73 fish species, 34 mussel species, and 14 species of large crustaceans. State conservation experts have designated the Sangamon River from its source to the Piatt/Macon County line as a “Biologically Significant Stream” for the diversity of life that it supports.

Clearly, there are contrasting views of our Sangamon River.

So it was that earlier this past summer I was slogging around in Crooked Creek, the “intermittent stream” that flows behind our house, as a volunteer for the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy’s Riverwatch Monitoring Program. I was with trained “Citizen Scientists” Bruce Colravy and Tim Garrow and we were looking for “macroinvertebrates.“ Macroinvertebrates are basically teeny little (but not microscopic) critters without backbones and include such lovely creatures as aquatic worms, insect larvae and things in shells that (apparently) don’t even belong to them. Depending on the type and number of macroinvertebrates found, the “Macroinvertebrate Biotic Index”, or MBI indicates a waterway’s health.

Riverwatch, sponsored by the Great Rivers Research and Education Center, Lewis and Clark College and the University of Illinois, monitors the health of Illinois streams and waterways. USRC President Bruce Colravy has been leading this effort locally for three years and is one of the few people I know who gets positively giddy at the mere mention of the word “Stonefly,” a key ‘indicator species’ for a healthy waterway.

In our area, 5 USRC members are trained Citizen Scientists and 7 are ‘untrained volunteers’ (one of which is me), that monitor 6 sites. These include the Sangamon River at Wildcat Slough and at Lake of the Woods, Wildcat Slough at the Sangamon River Forest Preserve, the creek at Buffalo Trace at the west end of Lake of the Woods, Pancake Creek north of Mahomet near Shiloh Cemetery, and last but not least, Crooked Creek that runs through our backyard.

As a result of this season’s monitoring, I was quite impressed to learn that “our” Crooked Creek had the highest MBI score of all six sites in 2011! That is, until Bruce informed me that MBI scores are like golf scores. That is, higher is decidedly worse.

But before I started getting too depressed about “our” creek’s poor health, I was relieved to learn that most of the tributaries to the Sangamon generally score “poor” or “very poor” according to the MBI. Phew. That makes me feel a LOT better.

Intriguingly however, the Sangamon River MBI scores rate the river as “good.”  This year, the two Sangamon River sites yielded the lowest MBI scores relative to the four Sangamon tributary sites. Apparently, the whole really can be superior to the sum of its parts.

And on the Stonefly scale, the Sangamon River at Lake of the Woods, yielded an impressive 32 Stoneflies this year. Even Pancake Creek, a tributary that runs through USRC’ers Tim and Linda Garrow’s backyard, yielded 13 Stonefiles. One was found at Buffalo Trace creek, which is still not bad. Wildcat Slough and, naturally, Crooked Creek, each yielded exactly 0 Stoneflies. But you just wait ‘til next year, Tim!

So at this relatively early stage of Riverwatch monitoring, with three years of data, the Sangamon River rates quite healthy. And while there may be work to do in improving the health of Sangamon tributaries, we can feel pretty good about the overall health of our river.

How the Sangamon River is viewed determines how it is valued. If people think the river is “dirty” they won’t value the river. The USRC believes that to achieve the goal of a healthier Upper Sangamon River, we will need to change perceptions and attitudes toward the river. And by documenting the health of the Sangamon River, Riverwatch is helping to change negative perceptions of our “Biologically Significant Stream.”

To become a Riverwatch Citizen Scientist volunteer, or to offer your property as a Riverwatch monitoring site, visit www.sangamonriver.org or contact president@sangamonriver.org.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, November 30, 2011 by Scott Hays

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