Fly-fishing is one of Debbie Stempf’s favorite pastimes, and that’s why she appreciates the pristine water quality in Shoshone Creek.
Even on hot days, the tributary creek delivers cold, clear water to the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, a blue-ribbon trout stream.
Once a month, Stempf puts on her waders to measure water temperature and oxygen levels in Shoshone Creek. She participates in a new citizen water quality monitoring initiative in the Idaho Panhandle.
“It’s a nice healthy stream,” said Stempf, a physical therapist from Spokane. “I’m just there watching to see if anything is amiss.”
Stempf is one of 60 people who have completed “master water steward” training through the University of Idaho Extension Service. About half of the participants have committed to monthly monitoring of a North Idaho stream.
The information will be entered into an online database, which will track the health of local streams.
“Through this program, we’re actually having people collect data and see what’s going on in their watershed,” said Ashley McFarland, a UI extension educator from Benewah County.
McFarland developed the program based on a similar endeavor in Iowa, where hundreds of citizen volunteers keep regular tabs on water quality in streams in the Hawkeye State.
“A lot of the people are landowners with streams running through their property,” said McFarland, who grew up on an Iowa dairy farm near the Mississippi River and earned a master’s degree in water resources at Iowa State University. “They have a genuine interest in the health of the stream.”
The same need exists in North Idaho, said Glen Rothrock, a state Department of Environmental Quality water quality analyst in Coeur d’Alene. As a result of funding constraints, only Lake Coeur d’Alene and Lake Pend Oreille receive extensive water quality monitoring. Smaller lakes and streams are tested on a rotating basis.
“If it’s done correctly, the information will be a real interest to us,” Rothrock said. “There are lots of streams that we may never get to, or may only get once every six years.”
The daylong master water steward training costs $25 per person. In the classroom, McFarland teaches people about how pollution gets into streams. During the field portion of training, they learn how to take readings for temperature, dissolved oxygen, and phosphorus and other pollutants. Students also collect and identify aquatic insects.
“We use bugs as environmental thermometers of the stream,” McFarland said. “We know the pollution tolerance of stoneflies, caddis flies and mayflies. They like to hang out in good places, preferring high-quality water.”
If worms and mosquito larvae are the predominant insects, “you know water quality isn’t as good,” she said.
Twice per year, volunteers submit water samples to the University of Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Center, where a more extensive laboratory analysis will measure levels of nitrates, total phosphorus and E. coli.
McFarland said the program’s focus is on monitoring “feeder streams” that flow into local rivers and lakes. “They’re wade-able streams, easy to access. You don’t have to have a boat,” she said.
The training started this year in Idaho’s five northern counties. McFarland hopes it will eventually spread to other corners of the state.
An $11,600 grant from the University of Idaho got the training going. To fund the $300 testing kits for watershed monitoring groups, the Coeur d’Alene Rotary and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service each contributed $3,000.
Stempf anticipates taking monthly samples at Shoshone Creek until she’s snowed out this winter. And next spring, she’ll be back in the creek in her waders.
Stempf sees parallels to the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count.
For a century, citizens armed with binoculars and notebooks have participated in one of the nation’s longest-running wildlife censuses. The annual bird counts help spot population trends and guide conservation action.
“People are discovering that there are lay people out there who are good observers,” Stempf said.