Meet Delaware's Stream Stewards
Citizen scientists share a passion for nature and clean water.
No matter the weather, at least once a month Rob Tuttle and Jeff Chambers meet at Ramsey Run, a gurgling brook in the Beaver Valley unit of First State National Historical Park (FRST) in north Wilmington. They’re both citizen scientists with The Nature Conservancy’s Stream Stewards project and they’re here to record water quality data and collect water samples.
Stream Stewards are volunteers trained to collect water quality data from the streams that flow through FRST into Brandywine Creek, the sole source of Wilmington’s drinking water.
Rob and Jeff park along the edge of Ramsey Road, nestled between gently rolling hills. As they grab their equipment and walk to their data collection site they sometimes hear the distinct call of a belted kingfisher.
While many Stream Stewards do not come from backgrounds in the sciences, some have applied their wealth of technical expertise to expand the program’s impact. Rob spent most of his career working for Siemens in software and systems. After retiring, he knew he wanted to spend more time volunteering and he also enjoyed spending time outdoors.
“I have a desire to help, to do the most good for the most people for the most generations,” Rob says. “I decided that spending my time on water quality improvement would serve that philosophy.”
Volunteering Fosters a Deeper Connection to Nature
Jennifer Harris says she became a Stream Steward in 2016, because it “sounded like a volunteer opportunity I would like since our family loves the outdoors and cares deeply about preservation and water quality issues.”
Jen worked for the State of Delaware in Health & Social Services for the last 26 years of her career, administering oversight of social service programs. She monitors Palmer Run, along with Gail Schneiders and Fred Hartman, a married couple who just started volunteering in early 2019. Palmer Run is a picturesque little stream that meanders through a forested section of the park near Ramsey Farm—not far from Rob and Jeff’s monitoring site on Ramsey Run.
Jen and her family have enjoyed spending time together outdoors for many years and her work with Stream Stewards has deepened that bond even more. “I enjoy my small piece of assisting the national park's efforts to protect these streams by helping to monitor them,” she adds.
Collecting Stream Data
Back at Ramsey Run, Rob and Jeff pull out their pocket meters, test kits and scrub brush. The data collection site has a Mayfly data logger designed and installed by scientists from the Stroud Center.
The data logger is kept safe inside a weather-proof plastic box which is mounted on a pole on the stream bank. The logger is connected by a cable to two stream sensors that stay in the water, recording data around-the-clock. The box also contains a battery that gets recharged by a solar panel mounted to the outside of the box.
The data collected continuously by the stream sensors includes water conductivity, stream temperature, water depth and turbidity (the cloudiness of the water) to help provide an understanding of how pollution is impacting these streams.
Jeff and Rob make sure the equipment is functioning properly and clean the stream sensors with the scrub brush before packing up. Rob’s site visit for the month is now complete but his volunteer role doesn’t end here.
To make sense of all of the information he collects, Rob has been working for two years on a software program to analyze the copious amounts of data being collected by the six sensor stations spread across FRST. The software package is intended for use by not just the Stream Stewards project but also by Delaware Nature Society and White Clay Wild & Scenic which are all supported by the Stroud Center. Data must be collected over long periods of time in order to detect changes in water quality.
Stream Data forms the Basis for Management Decisions
Stream Stewards is a partnership between The Nature Conservancy in Delaware, First State National Historical Park and Stroud Water Research Center and is funded by the William Penn Foundation and the Ernest E. Stempel Foundation.
The Stream Stewards program started collecting baseline data in 2016. Kim Hachadoorian, Stream Stewards project manager, says that the data have shown the water quality within the park is generally pretty good but could be improved. Rob says that the data show there are some potential issues from upstream land use including high conductivity levels which are likely the result of run-off from road salt applications in the developed areas surrounding the park.
“About one-third of the land in the park is in agricultural use—mostly crop fields and horse pasture,” says Kim. “If we manage this land properly we can minimize stream pollution from things like bacteria in run-off from horse manure and excess nutrients from fertilizers. The farmers and horse barn operators in the park are important partners in this process.”
Ultimately, the purpose of the data collection is to help inform better practices on the land to ensure cleaner water quality. By engaging in water quality data collection, Stream Stewards contribute to science-based management actions that will have a real conservation impact in the park.
Bringing Volunteers Together for the Health of Streams
Kim Hachadoorian’s face lights up when she talks about the Stream Stewards she has come to know so well over the past three years. “This program would not exist if it wasn’t for the dedicated individuals who have given their valuable time to be trained and to go out on the monthly site visits,” she explains. “Each of the Stream Stewards has their own reasons for participating in the program but at their core they all care about protecting our natural resources—our beautiful national park and the drinking water that Wilmington’s residents depend on.”
The Stream Stewards program continues to grow; there are plans to eventually expand to other monitoring sites outside of FRST.
“Perhaps my favorite aspect of the Stream Stewards project is how all of these people from different backgrounds have come together to teach and support each other,” Kim continues. “Nearly everyone joined because of a love for the outdoors but they’ve made friends along the way and I think that keeps them coming back—the community we have created.”