Mike Meetz stood in the ankle-deep water of Bear Creek some seven miles northeast of Ames Monday night, stuck his dip net into a slightly deeper section of the slow-moving current and carefully drug it along the creek's rocky bottom.
At the same time, Jerry Keys picked up a clipboard and pencil and joined Meetz in mid-stream. After a moment, Meetz lifted the net, water dripping over his arms and legs, and the two began meticulously combing through a treasure-trove of aquatic life trapped in the bottom of the net.
"We're looking for macroinvertebrates," says Keys, an environmental education coordinator for Story County Conservation. "They give us an indication of the quality of the water."
There, among an assortment of sand, gravel, twigs and algae, are numerous living things. Flopping things. Crawling things. Jumping things. Wiggling things.
To the untrained eye, an inch-long minnow and half-inch crawdad are recognizable. The others are not.
"That's a riffle beetle," Meetz says pointing to the dark, hard-shelled insect. "Actually, there are lots of them in this sample."
Meetz looks again and pulls the net a little closer to his face.
"There's a mayfly," he says, placing the spindly creature into a cube magnifier. "You can tell by the feathery gills it has along its body. "
For further confirmation, Keys holds up a laminated sheet with detailed drawings of the 28 macroinvertebrates likely to be contained in the creek.
He points to the drawing of the mayfly with its three long tails and numerous gills. Sure enough. It is, indeed, a mayfly.
Keys grabs the clipboard and puts a check-mark next to the mayfly's entry on a data sheet. He does the same for the riffle beetle, crawdad, dragonfly, scud, water strider and midge fly that the two identify.
One last dip next to a log in a deeper section of the stream yields a few of the previously identified insects along with something else. Among the hundreds of grains of sand in the bottom of the net, one peculiar-looking dark specimen is singled out. With the tip of a pencil, Meetz carefully turns over the tiny, hard object for closer inspection.
"It's a pouch snail," Meetz says.
"Is it a pouch snail or a regular snail?" Keys asks.
Meetz turns the pointy-tip of the snail upward. As an assistant scientist in virology who spends his days peering through a microscope at the Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory at Iowa State, Meetz is used to paying attention to minute details.
"It's a pouch snail," Meetz says. "You can tell by what direction the shell opens up. A pouch snail opens to the left when you look at it. A regular snail opens to the right.
"Pouch snails are considered a low quality macroinvertebrate. You find them everywhere. But the mayfly and riffle beetle are considered high quality species. They're found only in cleaner water. The fact that we found them here and that they're in abundance is a good sign."
On this particular evening, good signs seem to abound.
After spending an hour and a half conducting a series of tests in both Bear and Keigley creeks, Meetz and Keys come to the same conclusion.
"The water in both sites looks to be in good shape," Keys says, "and that's what we expect. But you never know for sure."
And that's why Keys and Meetz were wading in the water, warding off mosquitoes and leaches Monday night.
As volunteers for Iowater, the statewide citizen-based volunteer water quality monitoring organization, Keys and Meetz perform various tests at the same location every month.
"The bottom line is the Department of Natural Resources doesn't have the employees, the time or the money to do all the testing they would like to do," says Jacklyn Gautsch, an Iowater field coordinator. "Getting a volunteer group trained and putting equipment in their hands is a good way to get people started taking ownership of the environment as well as to start gathering data.
"It's going to take time to see major trends in certain watersheds, but it's a good starting point."
A unified vision
Iowater isn't the first organized attempt at gathering water quality data from volunteers. Similar endeavors have occurred in Iowa for several decades with groups such as the Izaak Walton League and the Natural Resources Conservation Service as well as coalitions like the Raccoon River Watershed Project and the Iowa Great Lakes Clean Water Project taking the lead in those efforts.
It was in 1996, however, that the Iowa Environmental Council decided to try to harness those various groups into a unified grass roots coalition to begin monitoring water quality in earnest. The result was the berthing of Iowater in 1998.
Overseen by the DNR, Iowater staff have spent the past three years equipping nearly 700 Iowans to test the water quality of Iowa's streams and rivers. For $25, volunteers take a 10-hour course that equips them to conduct a series of biological, physical and chemical tests such as assessing pH, oxygen, nitrate, nitrite and phosphate levels. Advanced training workshops also are offered.
To date, 56 counties in Iowa have registered monitoring sites. With 27 registered sites, including the two Keys and Meetz monitor, Story County is one of the most active volunteer water monitoring counties.
"It's a good, scientific method they've developed," Meetz says, "and the testing provides reliable baseline data."
It is scientific and reliable, although the methods and equipment aren't as sophisticated as those used by government agencies and professionals.
To test stream velocity, for example, Meetz and Keys use a tape measure, a string with a tennis ball attached to one end and a stopwatch. The string is held at a specific mark on the tape and the ball is released into the current. The stopwatch measures the time from when the ball is released until the time the line goes taught. A formula computes the average stream velocity and the total flow.
"There was some concern at one time that the data they were receiving might not be reliable," Keys says. "But they found out it actually was."
All data collected by volunteers is input on Iowater's Web on-line database where it is stored and eventually analyzed.
"We've conducted watershed studies in which our professionals have gone and done side-by-side sampling (with those of the volunteers), and the results are very favorable," Gautsch says. "Also, by comparing the data from the Geologic Survey Bureau's Ambient Water Monitoring Program with the data our volunteers have been collecting, we have shown that the two data sets are showing similar trends."
Playing in the water
Keys and Meetz both were certified in the spring of 2000 and began monitoring water in the Skunk River in July. With several other volunteers already monitoring the river at different sites, Keys and Meetz decided to test Bear and Keigley creeks. They've been doing it, winter withstanding, once a month since.
"We thought if we looked at a couple of feeder streams, it would give us a better idea of what's going on in the Skunk River," Meetz says. "So far we haven't seen a whole lot of variation in the data we've collected, but we have begun to see some trends. But you don't want to make any big assertions based on one piece of data until you've been doing this over a much longer time period."
And Keys and Meetz plan to continue what they're doing. "Water is an essential commodity," Meetz says. "We have to have it, and you can't put a value on it. We have high quality water here in Iowa. Let's keep it that way."
While monitoring water quality is serious business, it also offers Meetz and Keys an opportunity to get outside and enjoy the environment.
"People who like the outdoors, unfortunately in our busy lives, have to find excuses to get out of doors," Keys says. "This is an excuse to get out of doors.
"I know that on the second Monday of every month that I'm going to sit on the back of a van and eat a Subway sandwich, spend a little time talking to a good friend, and then go play in the water for a while. It's just a lot of fun."
It's also something not everyone understands.
"Some people think we're out here looking for something bad, trying to find out if people are dumping stuff in the water, but that's not what we're doing," Keys says. "Really, we're just out here gathering some baseline information.
"To be honest, I wish every stream in Iowa was as clean as Bear Creek. But, God forbid that anything ever happens to the water quality here, maybe we'll be able to find it."