Tuesday, March 24, 2015

From Creek to Website: Interning with the Watershed Education Network By Cory Hoffman

Hard at work.
I love Data! Those three words would play a large part in how I would be spending much of my time working with the Watershed Education Network. The Watershed Education Network, or WEN, is a nonprofit organization that provides education and outreach to the local community to raise awareness about local water related issues. For my experience with WEN, I have had the privilege of getting the hard work and countless hours of data collecting available to the public. 
As it turns out, there has been more enthusiasm by previous interns and volunteers in collecting stream monitoring data in the field, than there has been working with that data on a computer. This is understandable, because spending time wading around in Montana's streams while netting bugs is very appealing. So for a while, this information has been tucked away in binders, awaiting for someone with the time and patience to sit down make it available to the world. 

This is where I came into the picture. What a great responsibility and chance to enhance my skills. While I certainly love being in the outdoors, I felt grateful for the opportunity.

Fortunately I have been on both ends, in the field and in the office. This has allowed me as an aspiring scientist, to get an appreciation for the entire process. From standing in a creek netting macro-invertebrates (bugs), counting them,writing the information in the field, and putting that information into spreadsheets and onto a website where anyone can see it. It is also important as someone interpreting data to understand where biases and errors can occur, when collecting data for research or for conservation management decisions.

An empty data sheet I created on CitSci.org for a Lolo creek tributary.
I have been using a website called citsci.org as a way of bringing WEN's information to the public. It is a site allowing anyone to create projects where you can share data and observations to the public at large. You can also potentially allow others to join your project and contribute their own observations. I had to start from scratch, learning all the details of the website, and whether it would be a good fit for WEN or not, as well as determining the best layout for data sheets and finding a way to appropriately organize the data. Not to mention a great deal of other details that have given me experiences I hadn't had before. 

Collecting data in the field photo courtesy of montanawatershed.org
I also recently got to be a part of the training for the Stream Team, which is a program of WEN's that is involved collecting data on the local watersheds. WEN has a very thorough sampling method that it uses to gauge the local water quality. Biological, chemical and physical variables are all used to assess the overall health of the streams. I learned that mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies and dragonflies are good biological indicators of pollution levels in a stream, as they are very sensitive. They require cold water, relatively high levels of dissolved oxygen, clear water and a fairly neutral pH, therefore when you find them in a stream, you know the stream is doing pretty well. 
Other stream monitoring protocols involved pebble counts, which was a  random sampling of 100 pebbles to exam the average size of rock on the stream bed. Also there is the grid toss, another sampling of substrate involving a random sampling of a stream bed for fine sediment. Other features sampled were stream velocity, temperature, and the level of browsing on riparian vegetation from ungulates. Possibly one of the most interesting aspects of monitoring though, was using chemicals to check the pH and  dissolved oxygen levels. All this information was filed away in my brain to hopefully be used when I am working as a fisheries biologist. 

Hard copy data ready for where it is not very easily accessible
Being in the wilderness and civilization program has strengthened my desire to be an active part of the community I am in. Most of my life I have felt the need to be a conservationist in one way or another, and my time spent interning with WEN has allowed me to do that. Not to mention all the people I work with are some of the nicest people I have ever met, including Becca with her adorable dog George. There is also Deb, who is so positive you can't help but feel good about the world when she's around, not to mention she has a reputation of keeping those in the office well fed with all kinds of good treats. My time with WEN has not only allowed me to gain valuable skills, meet some great people, and have a great time, all while giving back to the community, and the environment.

The Clark Fork river, seen from the Kim Williams trail, is a symbol in many ways to the importance of 
monitoring stream health for me, as well as the fact that science can be used to restore ecosystems that 
have been previously degraded.

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