Sunday, March 15, 2009

Testing the Waters of the Sligo with Mike Smith



(This is the second installment of a two part series that originally ran in the March 2009 edition of the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park and Silver Spring.)
People are often surprised to find out that Friends of Sligo Creek volunteer Mike Smith is not a biologist or a chemist. In fact, he’s a librarian at the Smithsonian’s Freer & Sackler museums, downtown. But he takes the water samples as a volunteer.

“I grew up near the Northwest Branch,” he told me recently. “To a kid, the most striking things around here are the streams. I used to run along the banks of the creeks and look for crayfish.”

Like many of us who love the streams and treasure them, Mike often wondered just how dirty the water was.

“I think as a librarian, you look for sources of information,” he said. Since not that many records existed, he got training from the Anacostia Watershed Society and began keeping the numbers himself in 2004. Now, no one knows more about that water than Mike, although he’d never be the one to brag about it.

I tagged along a couple of weeks ago, to see what his work involves. Arriving at the parking lot I still felt bleary-eyed, but he was full of energy. Although it was February, the air was not cold and it seemed as if the day would be warmer than usual. As we made our way to the first of the three sites he’d be checking, Mike chatted about what he’d be looking for, and what information he’d be collecting.

“We had that snow storm a few days ago,” he said. “That might make the readings interesting today.” Although he didn’t rub his hands together in anticipation, I could hear the excitement in his voice.

This particular morning, we’d be collecting information for the chemical monitoring program, and we’d also be taking measurements of the water’s pH level, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, and temperature. (Friends of Sligo Creek, the organization for which Mike volunteers, also has a biological monitoring program, where volunteers are trained to take surveys of aquatic life and bacteria on a regular basis.)

As we drove into Prince George’s County and passed Rosa Parks Elementary School, Mike explained that this is where the main stem of the Sligo flows. It is, I must confess, the section of the park that I know the least. In fact, I was shocked when we got out of the car; these were fields I had never seen. I write about the creek, tell people that I know almost every section. I had no idea this spot even existed, and it was lovely.


A solitary jogger making his way through the early light nodded towards us in a friendly way. I could see the swirls of his breath wreath his face as he went by. We carried Mike’s small brief case of equipment past the empty athletic fields, through the trees and onto the banks. We had to climb over a lawn mower, abandoned and leaking oil into the creek.

“We’ll be getting that on the way back out,” Mike said, tapping it with the toe of his sneaker. “I see trash here a lot, but that is new. ”

There were cans, and bags and some pieces of old metal that could either be from other mowers or from cars. Even so, the creek burbled along calmly and because we were far from car traffic it was wonderfully quiet. While I watched Mike set up his measurements, I listened for early morning bird song and wondered where the bridge behind us led. This was one of those areas of the creek that is so far from the trails and roads that no one really bothers the animals that live there. Paradoxically, this is one of the most urban neighborhoods along the creek and yet probably the best one for wildlife viewing if you happen to come out in the early morning like Mike does.

“Sometimes I see herons,” Mike commented.

I watched as he gingerly made his way out onto a rock to fill a small vial of water, which he’d take home to test. Next, he opened a device that looked vaguely like a thermometer you’d use on an elephant. This device, called the YSI 85, is used for measuring the creek’s temperature, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, and its conductivity, or its ability to conduct an electrical current, which on this particular day measures 2399. For urban streams, a good measurement would be below 500, but even in the summer the number is often higher in the Sligo.

“In the winter, road salt can also make the conductivity go up, sometimes twenty times higher than it should,” Mike explained. After storms, the creek is often full of salt due to stormwater run off.

Mike also noted that the Montgomery County Department of the Environment is investigating conductivity in the Bennington Branches (near Burnett Avenue) and Brashear’s Run (also known as the Maple Avenue tributary), where the numbers have been unusually high. Later he explained that these two tributaries seem to have the most pollution discharges.

As we made our way to the next site, just of East-West Highway, I realized we’ll be collecting data just below speeding traffic. Even though it was early on a Saturday, busses and trucks made their noisy way down the road a few feet away.

This site, he tells me, tends to have higher nitrates and higher dissolved oxygen. “It makes me think maybe from sewer leaks,” he commented. There are never fish at this site, he noted with a grimace, although he often sees them elsewhere in the creek. This time around, though, the dissolved oxygen at this site was good, probably because of the cold weather.

It’s sad and a bit shocking to think that so many of these areas were swimmable and even drinkable not all that long ago. Nearby Spring Park in Takoma, Mike told me, was once a place where residents could help themselves to tasty bottles of clean water. Now I am loathe to even get my hand wet at the our creek’s banks.

We packed up the supplies for the second time that morning and step over frozen, brown brambles. On the way out, my foot caught on the dry, bone white skull of a dead deer. I show it to Mike. Oh yeah, he said, that was there for months, decaying. A truck downshifts on the road next to us and we climb back into his car.

Mike was trained by Masaya Masada, an ecologist working at the Anacostia Watershed Society. The water from Sligo Creek eventually drains into the Anacostia River, and by taking measurements of the smaller waterways, a snaphot emerges about where the river’s problems originate.

“What Mike is doing is a very tough thing,” Masaya told me recently via email. “Monitoring a stream in a chemical manner is actually a demanding task. We have to go to the stream regularly whatever the weather condition.” But it is also very important, Masaya continued, because you might not be able to find any pollution from a single visit. He says, for example, that Mike has documented very high conductivity in Sligo Creek in concentrations that could kill amphibians.

In addition to the work of the AWS and FOSC, there’s a US Geological Survey gauge near Queen’s Chapel Road at the confluence of the Northwest Branch and the Sligo that records data every fifteen minutes. Mike checks those readings against his which were made at the same time period. The numbers are charted on the web by the FOSC webmaster, and put into easy-to-read graphs and charts. Mike also writes descriptions of what he sees happening in the creek’s water.

“I try to make it like a USA Today version of the Sligo’s water quality,” he joked.

The water quality program has four goals:

- To make the governments aware that we are watching the creek.
- Provide data to anybody who wants it.
- To see if there’s any discharge which can then be reported
- To see if the creek is getting better or worse over time.

At our third stop, called the Wheaton Branch, the creek felt different. Quieter, for sure, and less trash. This might be because we were farther upstream and the trash has all travelled down southward. Or, it could be because the neighbors here are cleaning up more regularly. As we leave the car near Forest Glen Road and cross a bridge over some small ponds, we are startled to see a beaver cross the water. Later, while taking measurements, we find beaver tracks in the sand, too.

It would be easy to assume that the water in this area is cleaner, based on these appearances. But Mike and I discussed the nearby storm water ponds which were installed by the county many years ago to reduce flooding and pollution problems.

The sites near the ponds, he notes, usually have lower nitrates and lower conductivity than the others, but also lower dissolved oxygen and higher turbidity. Later, in an email, Mike explains that the ponds do a good job of removing nitrates and pollutants from the Wheaton Branch of the creek, but at the cost of lowering the oxygen and leaching sediment. He says they also store up a lot of road salt after snow storms. Bacterial also counts remain high in these areas, although Mike doesn’t regularly take measurements of those. So it might look prettier, but the water here is still very unhealthy.

So is the creek getting better or worse over time? I wondered about this as I said good bye to Mike and headed home for a big breakfast. I remember those people Mike described, gathering water at local springs to drink. Each year, more and more things seem to imperil the health of our local environment. It doesn’t seem to be getting better.

But when I asked Mike later in an email he replied: It is too soon to see a trend. Like any librarian… like any good citizen scientist… like any good record keeper… he wants more data, which means he’ll probably be gathering those numbers for years to come, and training others to do the same. In the meantime, he’s watching carefully, and reporting anything that is really unusual to elected officials, creek lovers, and government agencies.

I remain hopeful that the numbers will motivate more people to act and do what they can to improve the creek’s quality. As someone who cherishes the ability to report hard facts about the creek to anyone who will listen, I am thankful for all of the volunteer data keepers. As it struggles and burbles along, winding its way through our crowded, urban area, the Sligo provides me with a sense of immediate peace and renewal, and for that I am also very grateful.

(This story originally appeared in the March 2009 edition of the Voice newspapers. As usual, all rights reserved, and you may not use any of this text with out written permission from the author.)

1 comment:

Harmon said...

The chief source which has contributed to the water pollution is the human beings. Human beings needs the water at par and though a big contributor in the water pollution. The sweet water in the form of rivers and ponds are so polluted that it has come to the level of extinction. Industries are the biggest source of water pollution. Who are releasing large amount of hazardous waste into our water resources. In order to do proper treatment of this waste water consultant like JNB must be contacted