Community organizations call for ‘citizen scientists’ to keep waterways clean, safe

There is a new plan to empower Columbia residents to do something about the health and safety of their waterways.

Several community organizations are working as partners in an effort to mobilize the Midlands in a volunteer-based water monitoring program.

Rocky Branch Watershed Alliance, Smith Branch Watershed Alliance, City of Columbia Stormwater Management, Richland County Stormwater Management and Clemson Extension have received training in the Georgia Adopt-A-Stream stewardship program. And representatives from those organizations will be teaching residents to monitor their own local streams with the program, too.

“Currently, we are working to identify specific areas for monitoring,” said Autumn Perkins, executive director of Sustainable Midlands. “Our lead volunteer monitors were specially trained to monitor bacteria, chemical and macro-invertebrates.”

DHEC and local municipalities do not have the resources to monitor all of the water bodies in the area, and many pollutants go unnoticed for a long time. Local residents can help fill the void and inform decision makers by collecting their own samples from streams, rivers and lakes.

Volunteers, or “citizen scientists,” will become certified community coordinators after a mandatory instruction period, during which they will receive Adopt-a-Stream training.

“Many citizens want to know about the health of their water, especially if they live on or near it,” said Erich Miarka, executive director of Gills Creek Watershed Association. He explains that Columbia’s streams, especially Gills Creek, are some of the most polluted in the state.

Miarka says he would like to see the program become widely adopted by homeowner associations, schools, clubs, and other organizations around the Midlands.

“Students and teachers will benefit from the program by using it as an experiential learning tool,” he said. “This will get them out of the classroom and into their local environment where they can learn firsthand about our natural resources.”

With resdients doing their own monitoring at many locations, “hot spots,” spills and illicit discharges can be identified much more quickly.

“We are all invested in the promotion and protection of our waterways. Ensuring healthy water quality levels through the monitoring program is one way to do that,” said Marie Stallworth, director of public policy for Sustainable Midlands. “Public outreach and education is a large component of our organizations, and stream surveying and sampling are wonderful tools that allow the community to directly engage with their waterways.”

No special skills are required for the program, but those interested must be physically able to reach the waterbody they intend to adopt. Interested residents are urged to consider challenges like steep banks and landowner permission when trying to identify a site they have interest in adopting. Training is provided at no cost to volunteers.

“The Adopt-a-Stream program helps to educate the general public on our natural water resources and the threats they face,” Miarka said. “Columbia has a wealth of rivers and creeks for us to enjoy but unfortunately almost all suffer from serious pollution issues. Adopt-a-Stream is one method to track this pollution and raise awareness about the problem which will hopefully lead to a solution.”

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