My Volunteer Journal: Episode 12 – Testing My Adventurous Side and Water Quality with Heal The Bay

watertestingToday I feel like Indiana Jones - only less graceful, not as surly and searching for bacteria instead of long lost artifacts.  Water testing is the volunteer activity for the adventure seekers.  This is for the people who want to be Erin Brockovich, Indiana Jones, or Michael Crichton.  I am none of those people, but I am putting forth a valiant effort.

A few weeks ago I restored a stream with Heal The Bay by pulling up invasive plants and planting new ones.  During that activity I introduced myself to the Heal The Bay team and told them about my mission to do 50 different volunteer activities by 2010.  They then offered me a new opportunity, “Come with us to test water quality. We do it once a month.”  So a week later I found myself bush whacking through wild shrubbery and dead leaves wearing oversized waders to splash around in Malibu creeks. 

My guide from Heal The Bay is Kevin Jontz – Restoration and Monitoring Specialist. He does not spare me the dirty details and drags me straight down into creeks and ravines off the side of Malibu’s twisty roads.  He informs me that the bad guys in this episode (or in my mind Indiana Jones feature) are polluting companies, individuals, and the dreaded New Zealand Mud Snail. 

Having never heard of the New Zealand Mud Snail I was curious about it’s evil powers. These little beasties can be as small as a grain of sand; you can fit 100 on the face of a dime.   Once they get into a water system, like a Malibu stream, they multiply quickly. They are worthy adversaries because they reproduce by cloning themselves (parthenogenetically) – a truly sinister super power since one snail can produce 40 million new snails.  The end result of their narcissistic reproduction is that they crowd out the other species of invertebrates, which are food to animals like the endangered Steelhead trout, and thus this tiny slimy traveling snail destroys a delicate ecosystem.  

To prevent spreading the snails, which have so far infected three creeks in Malibu, we must change our waders every time we enter a new area.  Waders are not as sexy as chaps but are much hotter (climate wise). They effectively keep your legs dry and deter all creepy crawlers, so I love them.

Once we climbed, crawled, and slid our way into the designated area we start testing the creek. We measured the air temperature and did a visual survey of trash and debris. All sites were clear of trash except for one, which had remnants of plastic bags, tires, and metal mesh.  Then Kevin would pull well-used scientific equipment from his backpack so we could measure water temperature, conductivity, turbidity, phosphorus, nitrate-nitrogen & ammonia-nitrogen and dissolved oxygen.  Finally, we would carefully take water samples from more than one area of the creek so Kevin could analyze it at the Heal The Bay lab. 

At the lab Kevin will measure for bacteria Enterococcus, E. coli, and Total Coliform. He informs me that when they did bacteria readings after it rained a few weeks ago the E. Coli readings were off the charts.  Bad news: E. coli can make you really sick and in some horrible cases it can kill.  Some of the bacteria in the water can be attributed to animal and human waste that gets washed into streams during a storm.  Just another reason to pick up after your dog – if you don’t his waste could make you sick later after you have a relaxing day at the beach. 

One of the great joys about volunteering for water testing is while splashing around in the creek you can see a whole host of wildlife.  In one stream we saw beautiful spider webs, water crawlers and a very noisy frog sitting happily in the mud.  Kevin reminds me that the more diverse a creek's creatures are the healthier the ecosystem.

As important as Heal The Bays water monitoring is to public health the program was almost shut down last year when the state of California decided it didn’t have enough money to continue the program.  Kevin and crew kept working through the financial crisis because they didn’t want a break in their data and luckily funds were soon found to continue the work.

Currently, Heal The Bay is actively seeking to train new volunteers to participate in the water-testing program.  Anyone is welcome – one volunteer brings her older children and they have a family team who tests. Another gentleman lives on Lake Malibu and goes out monthly in his boat to test 8 different spots in the lake. 

If you are into adventure and want to help clean up waterways contact Heal The Bay.  If they don’t have a group working in your area they can point you to an organization near you that works to save our aquatic resources.