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Critters help indicate health of streams

KINGSTON — While county agencies and local environmental groups often test Kitsap streams for fecal coliform and other pollutants, there is another way to check the health of local waters — studying the biological life that exists within.

“We’re trying to get a baseline idea of how healthy our streams are,” Kitsap County Stream Team coordinator Val Koehler said.

Through the Stream Team’s Benthic Biological Macroinvertebrate Monitoring Program, Koehler works with volunteers between Aug. 15 and Oct. 15 at 21 sites around the county. At each, the group takes samples of organisms that live within the streams. Collected samples are then sent to a laboratory, where scientists determine the health of the stream based on the diversity of the critters found and other criteria.

This week, Koehler and Kingston residents/volunteers Byron and Sara Kane hiked through field and forest with bags of sampling equipment to gather living organisms from the waters of Martha John Creek, off NE 288th Street.

“We get out and see what’s in the environment,” Byron Kane said about why he and his wife volunteer. The Kanes also dedicate their time to stream monitoring at Stillwaters Environmental Education Center.

“It’s like when we walked back

here, we didn’t know this stuff was here,” he added.

The stream looked pristine at first glance, Koehler said, and only after the palm-sized rocks were lifted and mud was sifted

that things started to get messy.

“It may look real pristine but you find the dirt, worms,” she said.

In this particular stream, May flies, stone flies and caddis flies are usually abundant. A mixture of all three coexisting within the waterway is a good indicator of a healthy environment, however, if these bugs aren’t found, there could be a problem upstream, Koehler said.

Pollution such as leaking sewer systems, chemical fertilizers or poor forestry practices that release unnecessary sediment into the water could contribute to an unhealthy environment.

“These bugs need oxygenated water,” Koehler said.

The benthic program started three years ago with a grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology, but funding ran out last year. Despite this and due to a large volunteer base that had developed, the county was able to pay for laboratory costs this year and the program was able to continue, Koehler said. But it is currently seeking ways to help pay for lab costs in the future for several reasons.

The county wants to protect the streams that are healthy as well as help the streams that are degrading, she said.

Monitoring the biology of the waterways is also another way to study pollution in local streams — rather than testing for chemicals, monitoring helps show how chemicals or pollution affect living things, Koehler explained.

“They go hand-in-hand,” Byron Kane added.

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