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A Layman’s Look at the Valley of the Fox Water Sentinels Testing Day
If you require instant gratification, cleaning up rivers may not be for you.
Fran Caffee started monitoring the Fox River in her adopted home town of Aurora, Illinois, in the early 1990s, when local residents found white, greasy blobs the size of grapefruits in one of the Fox tributaries. Dead ducks too. Fast forward 50 years, to 2035 — that’s when, Caffee says, the Fox will be officially “clean,” according to the enforcement mechanisms of the Clean Water Act.
But every 50-year journey is made up of many steps, like the fall water testing day I recently observed in and around Aurora, where 10 volunteers from the Sierra Club’s Valley of the Fox Group collected samples from 20 sites along the Fox and its tributaries, and by that afternoon, made the results available to the Illinois EPA.
I walked along the Fox River Bike Trail with Nate Stelton, a technical writer who’s been volunteering with the Water Sentinels for eight years. The ground is covered with leaves, the trees almost bare. It’s cold and misting. Not a bicyclist in sight. At the bridge over Mill Creek, Stelton lowers his white bucket into the shallow water from the downstream side to rinse it, then lowers it again on the upstream side, lets it fill with water, then raises it. He pours the creek water through a funnel to fill a sediment stick, a clear tube three feet high and one inch in diameter. The water is clear enough to see the black spot at the bottom of the tube, so Stelton records that turbidity, or TSS (total suspended solids), at 36+ inches, on the same clipboard where he has recorded the air temperature (4° C), water temperature (10° C), and time (7:55 am).
After another Mill Creek reading along Randall Road, we hook up with Linda Cole and Rick Korthauer, who transport us in a golf cart on a paved path along the main branch of the Fox, just north of downtown Aurora. Linda, who has already taken two samples, follows the same process from a bridge at the mouth of Indian Creek.
From there, we take the samples to Ron Bedard’s garage. A retired chemist, Ron is co-chair of the Valley of the Fox Water Sentinels, and his garage is where all the volunteers must deliver their samples by 10:00 a.m. I pictured a garage with a chemistry lab across from the lawnmower, crammed with beakers, periodic table charts, and bunsen burners. (It’s been a long time since I took college chemistry.) Instead, it’s a suburban alley ronted by two rows of white garage doors, and next to one is a sawhorse with a cooler on top, a green Sierra Club placard, and a plastic bag full of new plastic containers for volunteers to take back for the winter sampling.
Nate Stelton and Eric Weck outside Ron Bedard’s garage.
The actual lab is in a classroom at the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), a public residential high school in a round building surrounded by sports fields and parking lots. Inside, we follow colored tiles around the outside ring of the school to a classroom where Bedard, Heidi Garbe, Eric Weck, and Sherry Wolfe, are prepping the testing equipment.
Eric has lined up 20 samples on the counter, each in a labeled clear plastic container. Heidi starts measuring conductivity by dipping the EC tester, which looks like an electric toothbrush, without the brush, into a sample of distilled water, to calibrate the instrument to the baseline. Distilled water should have a reading of 0. Then she holds the meter in sample #1 until it stops changing. Ron explains that conductivity is correlated to the level of salts in the sample. The normal range is 1250-1280 microsiemens per centimeter (µs/cm). The Mill Creek bike path level is 1270. After the roads are salted in the winter, Ron says, the readings can climb to 1400, 1500.
Meanwhile, Eric, careful to stay out of Heidi’s way, is starting with sample #20, measuring turbidity — how cloudy the water is. This is a more quantitative reading than what the volunteers do at the test site with the sediment stick. Sample #20 gets a reading of 6 FTU (formazin turbidity unit), which is on the clear end of the scale.
As Heidi and Eric say their results out loud, Sherry repeats them as she adds to the spreadsheet. The data goes back eight years digitally and there are paper records for many years before that. (Here’s a graphic Sherry created to show the life of a water sample.)
Next come nitrates and phosphates,which are tested by mixing the water samples with chemicals in a small vacuum vials with breakable tips. Eric dips the tip in a sample. Sherry says, “ten seconds to break and shake,” and then he breaks the tip, and the water is sucked into the vial.
Eric Weck and Heidi Garbe in the IMSA lab.
He shakes for a minute, then lets the sample sit for five minutes. Heidi then places the vial into the Hach spectrophotometer, which shines a wavelength of light through the sample, and gives a reading of how much light passes through.
Mill Creek sample results: 0.6 mg/liter for nitrates and and 0.8 mg/liter for phosphates — which are relatively clean.
By early afternoon, the data from the fall testing has been uploaded in several formats, including the one desired by IEPA. It’s also posted here on the Grassroots Network.
Sherry Wolfe enters data as Ron Bedard looks on.
How does this data help? Three ways, says Ron. One is it helps monitor progress on the cleanup. Two, it helps make the case for stronger state standards on phosphates. “The river cleans itself,” he says, “but only if there’s no more pollution entering the water.” Three, it identifies problem spots. A few years ago, they found high turbidity readings from Indian Creek, which is near a mall. Turns out the when the snowplows removed snow from the parking lot, the drivers dumped the snow into a wetland next to the creek. Fran went to the city council to make a fuss and there was no more dumping snow into that wetland.
The Valley of the Fox Water Sentinels is one of dozens of Water Sentinels teams around the country, and each have their own flavor, but it was the first site — it launched as the Clean Water Task Force, with Fran and Gene Schultz as two of co-founders — and has served as a model for the national program.
The Valley of the Fox site, Fran explains, has advantages, other than its crack team of volunteers. It owns its own lab equipment, and it has the benefit of a retired chemist (Ron Bedard, Ph.D.), who can oversee the testing and help interpret the results. They do it all on a budget of about $100 a year. (Unless they have to purchase some new equipment or do routine maintenance.)
They also have a project called Runoff Rangers, which monitor constructions sites,and a Phosphorus Team, which measure phosphorus only at headwaters of various tributaries in Northern Illinois. They’re planning to expand into southern Wisconsin.
The Valley of the Fox Water Sentinels is also supported by the Illinois Chapter, which has a staff member, Cindy Skrukrud, PhD, devoted to water issues. She, along with the Illinois Chapter Conservation Committee, is able to leverage the work of the Valley of the Fox Sentinels to advocate for stronger state standards and protection.
Heidi says she got involved with the Sierra Club when she moved back to the state and wanted to connect with the community, help an organization she had faith in, and network with a group of dedicated individuals with similar interests. “The water testing was a perfect opportunity given my science background and interest in environmental health. And for people that don't have time to dedicate weekly, the quarterly requirement is something most can commit to. Fran and Ron and Eric are phenomenal leaders and we are a family of sorts. We look forward to our time together.”
In 2000, the national Sierra Club grew the Water Sentinels into a program with 8 staff and active in 20 states. The funding for the national program has dried up, however, pun intended, and now we’re in a rebuilding phase. There are currently no dedicated national staff coordinating the Water Sentinels, but four chapters — Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Arizona — have Water Sentinels staff. A new national leadership team is just launching now, with the goal of serving as a clearinghouse for protocols and materials,and helping local sites raise funds to become self-sufficient.
One other hope is that this leadership team can collect or create a template to help a new site get off the ground, a “Water Sentinels in a Bottle.” Just add water, and a team of dedicated volunteers.