Texas Stream Team
The Texas Stream Team is a group of trained citizen scientists who collect and sample water quality all over the state. Often, they are the ones who sound the alarm to state agencies charged with protecting our water resources. On the podcast we'll learn about a unique group of first responders who are taking their passion for water to a scientific level.
Under the Texas Sky: S3E16: TEXAS STREAM TEAM
The sounds of a cool running stream can be soothing to the soul. And it’s been said that the pristine beauty of Texas rivers and streams adorn the state like jewelry sparkling in the sun.
There are over a hundred and ninety thousand miles of waterways in Texas. Protecting and keeping watch over all of them takes a lot of coordinating and dedication.
[ERYL] I'm gonna swirl it, and we're going to be doing what's called titration, which is basically we're going to be adding...
Enter Texas Stream Team, a group of trained citizen scientists who collect and sample water quality all over the state. Often, they are the ones who sound the alarm to state agencies charged with protecting our water resources.
On the podcast we'll learn about a unique group of first responders who are taking their passion for water to a scientific level.
Stay with us.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
[JENNA] Eryl's going to grab a sample of water here at the river's edge, and so she'll rinse it twice...
That's Jenna Walker from the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment describing the work of student research assistant Eryl Austin-Bingamon (Austin-bing-ah-mun). Both share a common bond, a desire to protect the state's rivers and streams. They are also part of a community-driven citizen science program called Texas Stream Team. Producer Randall Maxwell joined Jenna and Eryl for one of their routine water quality checks of the San Marcos River.
[JENNA] I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and my family moved to Boerne from San Antonio when I was about 12 years old.
Growing up in the Texas Hill Country, Jenna Walker’s passion for water began at an early age.
[JENNA] Camping and boating and canoeing with my family, getting to know, you know, our creeks and rivers that way, splashing through the water, on a boat and also just playing in the brush land around there and building forts and a lot of outdoor time as a kid.
That sense of adventure as a kid stayed with Jenna. After graduating from college and working two years for a state senator, Jenna decided to move abroad. Soon she would realize how fortunate she was to have grown up in Texas.
[JENNA] I moved to Ecuador and taught English abroad for a year, and it was there that I really started to understand how lucky I was to come from a place like Texas where we have these fresh water systems, we have clean water to drink and so that I think was like a big impression on me.
The most profound impact on Jenna was realizing how many areas of the world don't have clean water to drink out of a tap.
[JENNA] So they either have to buy bottled water or you know, go to great lengths to secure clean drinking water, versus in Texas, it's just a given. We assume that we're going to have clean water coming out of the tap. And, so traveling all over South America and Central America I started to realize just how precious that is and what a luxury it is and so that prompted me to want to work to protect clean water and protect those natural resources.
Natural resources like the many streams and rivers that run through our state. Her experience abroad convinced Jenna to pursue a Master's Degree in Resource and Environmental Studies at Texas State University. Her path soon led her to the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, where she is Deputy Director of Watershed Services and Program Manager of Texas Stream Team, which was originally called Texas Watch. Jenna shares how the program got started.
[JENNA] It was an idea by a group of folks in 1991 that were working at the Texas Water Commission. They were hearing more and more about this citizen scientist work around the state and also the nation, it was kind of a growing trend, and they were wanting to supplement the professional data with citizen science data. So they decided to create this hub for then all of the data to then go towards Texas Watch, and then it was eventually renamed Texas Stream Team.
The program is funded by money from the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act through an annual grant from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Texas Stream Team has trained well over 10,000 citizen scientists and in 2021 will celebrate its 30th anniversary.
On this visit to the San Marcos River Jenna's working with citizen scientist Eryl Austin-Bingamon. Eryl is a student research assistant at the Meadows Center and President of Texas State University's own Bobcat Stream Team. She's sitting at the river's edge next to an open black case that contains test vials, eyedropper bottles with testing agents, color-coded scales and a measuring cup.
[ERYL] What we have here in the core kit is the most indicative parameters, something that really helps get a snapshot of stream health. And these are things that citizen scientists have to practice obviously and it does take a little bit. For me it took about a year until I felt really really comfortable doing this on my own. But I think not only the more they practice the better they get, but the more they practice the more engaged they get, and the more they come to understand what's normal for the stream they are monitoring at.
Eryl joined the Texas Stream Team her freshman year of college at Texas State University where she is majoring in Aquatic Biology. But her curiosity about understanding water quality began much earlier.
[ERYL] I've always been scientifically inclined. Actually when I was in high school I got a Beta fish on a whim and I wanted to learn how to take care of it, so I took an aquatic science class at my high school and learned how to do fishkeeping. Got really really involved with fishkeeping just in general and just a lot of the stuff that we do in this kit, you can kinda do with fishkeeping also when you're testing parameters in your tank. So when I came in I felt like I already had this kind of basic understanding of how these parameters affect the natural health of the river and the organisms in it, and so I think that that's the route that I took when, really coming to understand that I wanted something with science, but I wanted to do something that also felt natural to me.
Eryl's first test in her kit is for conductivity, which measures how many ions are dissolved in the water.
ERYL & JENNA] So for conductivity, I would go ahead and take the sample water, and I would want to rinse our sample cup twice. And then I would discard the sample water into the waste container. For everything I'm doing I'm always going to be rinsing it twice. And then to actual conductivity sample, I'm going to go ahead and fill it up about half-way. This looks good. And then I take our probe. I take the cap off and insert it into the water. Turn it on while it's in the water. It's going to flash on the screen with some numbers. The top number is going to be our conductivity and the bottom is going to be the temperature. I let it kind of sit until it looks like it's resting at a decent number, and what I'm reading here is 620 with a temperature of 21.1 degrees Celsius. So around 600 to 800 is usually what I get when I'm taking conductivity on the San Marcos River so this is basically what we would expect. So the next measurement I would usually take would be the pH, and that's just a measure of the acidity versus basicity of the water. On the San Marcos River I usually get around 7 to 8.5. Sometimes it can be on the side of basic since we're getting a lot of limestone carbonate dissolution into the water, which affects the pH, so again, I'm going to be rinsing my vial twice with my sample water and discarding it into the waste container. And then filling it up. It's different on some vials, but for this vial I would be filling it up to the 5 ml mark. Just a little more. And then I would be taking out one of the reagents from our kit. It would be our wide-range indicator. So I take the wide-range indicator and I'm going to be putting 10 drops into our sample water. Then I'm going to cap the vial. And I'm going to invert it 10 times. I would say it would be around 7.5 to 8. Yeah?
[ERYL] Maybe I would estimate a 7.6 probably.
[JENNA] Great, okay. So I'll record 7.6 on the form.
As Jenna fills out the monitoring form, Eryl remains methodical in her testing, almost like she's following a prized recipe for the perfect dish. She wears protective gloves, not just because her dissolved oxygen test involves sulfuric acid, but any sunscreen on her hands can also impact a pH measurement. I didn't realize there was so much detail to test the water in a river. I started to wonder how Eryl managed to remember all the protocols.
[RANDALL & ERYL]
[RANDALL] When you started learning how to do this, were you overwhelmed or were you naturally excited?
[ERYL] I think it was a little bit of both honestly. Because I started learning how to do this when I was a freshman, I was overwhelmed that the amount of information that I needed to know to go into it, but I was excited to learn that information and learn how to apply it. I grew up in Austin, so it's kind of in the heart of Central Texas. And I think one of the unique things about the hill country is that there's so many natural beautiful water sources, and my family, when I was young, would vacation to the Frio river. We would tube on the Comal. We'd come here, so I grew up understanding not only the emotional, but the physical value of water. And protecting water is something that has a lot of personal value to me I think because of that.
[RANDALL] What is the emotional value of water?
[ERYL] I think people naturally flock to water, and I think part of that is because when you look at water, it's kind of like mediation, for me at least. It stills your mind and there's something beautiful and really grounding for people.
[MUS—MARSH AND THE MELLOW]
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
Texas Stream Team is a statewide organization headquartered at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos, Texas. They've trained over 10,000 citizen scientists to help monitor water and environmental quality across Texas. Producer Randall Maxwell met two of those citizen scientists, student research assistant Eryl (Air-ull) Austin-Bingamon (Austin-bing-ah-mun), and Jenna (Gin-ah) Walker, Program Manager of Texas Stream Team.
[ERYL] This is actually perfect looking. So like I said, dissolved oxygen, there's several steps...
That's Eryl Austin-Bingamon doing a dissolved oxygen test at the San Marcos river. She's a student research assistant at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. She's also a core water quality trainer for the Texas Stream Team. That means she's usually teaching citizen scientists how to conduct water testing. Once the citizen scientists are trained by Texas Stream Team trainers, they begin monitoring the local streams in their communities and report that data on a monthly basis back to the Meadows Center where it is stored in a common online database. With Eryl is Jenna Walker, Deputy Director of Watershed Services at the Meadows Center and Program Manager of Texas Stream Team. I'm walking with Jenna at the river's edge just upstream from where Eryl is testing. She shares with me what happens when the Stream Team's routine testing results stop being routine.
[RANDALL & JENNA]
[RANDALL] You collect all this data. When do the alarm bells start to sound?
[JENNA] Usually when there is some kind of significant outlier. A lot of times that's what we're looking for. Sometimes citizen scientists will get a little tired of just getting the same results every month, but that's actually a good thing. It's when there's a big spike or a crash in the dissolved oxygen where the alarms go off and that's really what our organization is all about. We are wanting extra eyes and ears on the river so that we can sound the alarms if there's some kind of event, a pollution event that needs to be addressed immediately. A pollution event can go undiscovered for months if our citizen scientists were not out there observing on a monthly basis.
[RANDALL] Are you kind of like the first responders for Texas streams?
[JENNA] Yeah, we love calling it that because it's just an added set of boots on the ground and eyes on the river.
[RANDALL] What has happened in the past where you've actually had to take action?
[JENNA] A good example, before I became the Program Manager for Texas Stream Team I was a group coordinator for Texas Stream Team in Waco. And I was training citizen scientists, and one of the citizen scientists, he would monitor on a monthly basis out on Lake Waco, and he noticed one time that there was this film all around on top of the water. It was like an oil sheen. So he contacted me immediately. So I went out there with him and observed the oil and we were able to trace it back to this diesel powered pump that was illegally pumping water from the lake to this landowner's property and it was leaking diesel into Lake Waco which is the source of drinking water for the community. And so we contacted TCEQ immediately and they were able to cite the landowner for this pollution event, and address it and curb that from happening again. And who knows how long it would have continued to leak diesel into the lake if it were not for the citizen scientist.
And it's not just the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality called into action, but other agencies as well.
[JENNA] In urban areas there will be evidence of not only diesel but you know other pollutants that are entering the stream and then causing a fish kill, so you know, lots of dead fish around, and our citizens will report that immediately, and with Texas Parks and Wildlife contacting the Kills and Spills team so that they can come and identify the pollution event. What's great is that you know it's all of us local citizens that may not have a scientific degree or a science background, but have that interest and can participate in a half-day long training to learn how to test with our kits and then start monitoring on a monthly basis.
In addition to the core training, Texas Stream Team offers an advanced training to their seasoned citizen scientists that's focused on non-point source pollution. There's also programs like the riparian evaluation and something called the macroinvertebrate biomonitoring program.
[JENNA] We train our citizen scientists to collect macroinvertebrates, the small aquatic insects that are living in the stream that do not have a vertebrate. They are a wonderful way to tell us about the water quality of a system by either their presence or absence and the number of them that are there, which is also a great educational tool and so much fun for kids and adults to be learning about these different aquatic organisms.
[JENNA] Texas is an incredibly diverse state. We have you know the mountains in West Texas, we have the piney woods in East Texas. We have hill country streams that are mostly flowing out of springs. And then even out in these urban areas of our biggest cities there are places to monitor water quality. There are these places to experience nature and Texas Stream Team is a great way to have an excuse to get down to the river. I've always noticed that when I get out there and I'm about to monitor, I feel like my heart rate just lowers a little bit. I take a deep breath. I look around. Every month I know I need to get back out there and monitor. Like right now, we're in the middle of San Marcos near I-35 on the banks of the San Marcos river and this crystal clear water, and we want to keep it that way. We want to protect it and make sure that it's here for future generations to enjoy.
And for young citizen scientists like Eryl, it's a chance to make a difference.
[RANDALL & ERYL] I think the thing that makes Texas Stream Team special for me, as somebody who really cares about the environment and really feels that special connection to water, hearing about all of the, you know, terrible pollutants and all of the things that were going on with Texas rivers, feels really overwhelming and you feel nihilistic about it I guess, you know, like what can I do to help and here's something that you can do. And here's something that not only engages you, but you get to engage with other people who share the same values with you. I mean, I always cared but being able to engage on that level and being able to see that I was doing something, that's what made me feel so much more connected.
[RANDALL] And you're making an impact.
[ERYL] Exactly, yeah.
Keep up the good work Eryl. The future health of Texas rivers and streams will depend on citizen scientists like you.
If you'd like to be part of Texas Stream Team and learn how to be a citizen scientist in your community, check out the Texas Stream Team website at txstreamteam.org.
For Under The Texas Sky, I'm Randall Maxwell.
[MUS—TO ORBIT YOUR SOUL]
And so, we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available at UndertheTexasSky.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
We record the podcast at The Block House in Austin, Texas. Joel Block does our sound design.
Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing provide distribution and web help. Whitney Bishop does our social media. I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti, reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.
[ERYL] What we have here in the core kit is the most indicative parameters, something that really helps get a snapshot of stream health.
Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.