GUEST BLOG: Patricia Tice Jarrett, Office Manager, MRWA
When I tell friends about my job working for the MRWA, they are often surprised about the variety and unpredictable nature of my work, especially when I am out in the field. I have to remind them that it is not the norm. I spend far more time at my desk taking care of all the details that keep the train on the tracks.
On the other hand, there are certain days that stand out. For example, on a cloudy Friday at the end of May I joined a team of DTE men and women hauling discarded tires out of the woods near Rice Creek in Montcalm County.
About a month earlier I found myself in waders holding a long handled fine mesh net scraping the bottom of Brooks Creek in Newaygo looking for aquatic insects. You just never know what’s coming next.
The tire story started with a conversation I had with Robin Sholty, clerk for Reynolds Township in Montcalm County. I have many similar conversations in the course of a week and not all of them pan out but this one presented some interesting possibilities. Robin told me that Reynolds Township was planning a recycling event for discarded tires. She went on to say that a concerned local citizen reported a site near Rice Creek where over 100 tires had been stashed in the woods. Old rotting tires leach hazardous chemicals into the ground and ultimately into the ground water. Recycling is the only answer.
We had a location and a destination. What we needed was committed people and transportation. Some basic investigation led me to DTE Energy, one of our frequent partners. As it turned out DTE sponsors a company-wide initiative to support good environmental stewardship called “DTE Cares”. I spoke with local supervisor Tyler Gage who immediately jumped on board. And don’t you love it when a plan comes together.
When Marty Holtgren and I arrived on Friday morning May 22, Tyler and 12 members of his team were already on site with a line of DTE trucks and trailers. By the end of the day we had dragged over 150 tires out of the woods along with one waterlogged mattress that we found half in and half out of Rice Creek, a pretty, little stream that deserves better. Some of the tires had been there so long that trees had grown through them and they had to be cut free.
According to Robin, the recycling event exceeded expectations and she appreciated our support
“Thought I would let you know … 1500 tires were collected. A big success! This would not have been possible without you! So a BIG THANK-YOU for all your help.”
The circumstances that led me to Brooks Creek with a net in my hands are more complicated. To understand you need to have some background on the Volunteer Stream Monitoring Program (VSMP) managed by the Michigan Clean Water Corporation (MiCorps). According to the website https://micorps.net/:
MiCorps is a network of volunteer water quality monitoring programs in Michigan. It was created through Michigan Executive Order #2003-15 to assist the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in collecting and sharing water quality data for use in water resources management and protection programs.
MiCorps’ VSMP provides technical assistance, training, and grants to volunteer stream monitors in Michigan to ensure that they are collecting reliable, high-quality data.
Trained MiCorps volunteers collect and analyze macroinvertebrates or aquatic insects in order to determine the health of the stream. The more of the good bugs – those that can only survive in cool clean well oxygenated streams – the better report you can write.
Volunteer is the key word here. The DEQ does not have the staff to monitor a significant sample of freshwater streams and must rely on motivated and well-trained volunteers. We refer to them as Citizen Scientists and they are essential to much of the work we do
The MRWA has supported the program since the original start up grant in 2003 by serving as a facilitator. We recruit, train and equip volunteers and collect and categorize the data they provide. The DEQ through MiCorps provides the necessary funding to qualified organizations who apply for the grant.
Following a conversation with area coordinator Paul Steen, I understood that MiCorps had initiated some significant changes to the program in the interest of insuring high quality data. For the first time, the guidelines call for monitoring teams of four or more to ensure proper handling of insects. Additionally, Paul designated eight specific locations that must be monitored in each cycle to fulfill the conditions of the grant.
While we definitely support the changes which we felt were necessary, there is no question they created some challenges. Some of our long-time volunteers didn’t react positively and decided to drop out. It became clear that we would have to recruit and train a brand new team of volunteers while updating some of our internal policies regarding equipment and materials.
The group that showed up for an all-day training at Brooks Township Hall in Newaygo were just what we needed – motivated and eager to learn. These would be our team leaders. Our own Cindy Fitzwilliams-Heck a biology professor at Ferris delivered her usual high quality presentation and then we all went to Brooks Creek to practice what we learned.
Some of us suited up with waders. Others stayed onshore and identified the bugs. Just like MiCorps wants it to happen. It is amazing how much fun natural science can be, particularly when your environment is a cold clear little stream that produces abundant mayfly and caddisfly larvae among other sensitive species. Brooks Creek would get a clean bill of health in anybody’s book.
Feeling confident in our process, the next step was to schedule the official site visits where the data collected would be analyzed and eventually entered into a statewide database. The teams met in Newaygo at Ed Henning Park for distribution of the nets and other gear including the field data sheets. Offering a few final words of encouragement and map coordinates, we sent them off to their designated sites.
I am pleased to report all the teams returned with a nice collection of macroinvertebrates later that day and were able to complete their identification and documentation at the park.
They apparently appreciated the experience. John Stegmeier, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services employee and one of our team leaders sent us this comment: “There is an amazing diversity of life all around us that remains unnoticed much of the time. Taking part in the insect monitoring program as a Citizen Scientist allows you to see and discover a part of this diversity first-hand and experience first-hand the connections between land use, water quality and the diversity of life in a stream”.