Stream Research: Learning the science of streams

Posted on: June 4th, 2015 by Brent Gotsch

I spent the last two days stand­ing in a stream. Was it cold? Yes. Was I fish­ing? Nope.  Instead of wad­ing into the cold moun­tain waters (in waders, don’t wor­ry!) of a pris­tine Catskill stream to fish, I was learn­ing stream sci­ence and col­lect­ing data. Sci­en­tists from NYC DEP are begin­ning their field research sea­son, and with the help of interns from a SUNY Ulster intern­ship pro­gram, they are con­duct­ing hands-on field research to mea­sure, mon­i­tor, and pro­tect streams in the Catskills. With a clip­board in hand for record­ing data, I observed my cowork­ers teach­ing, orches­trat­ing field equip­ment, and demon­strat­ing hands-on sur­vey pro­ce­dures of stream assess­ment. We were learn­ing how to mea­sure the fea­tures of the stream to deter­mine its ero­sion poten­tial and impacts to water qual­i­ty, which involves col­lect­ing a sub­stan­tial amount of data. We care­ful­ly arranged field equip­ment along the length and width of the stream, and mea­sured details about the stream channel’s dimen­sions and struc­ture, includ­ing rif­fles and pools, slope, chan­nel depth, flood­plain, and looked for evi­dence of how the stream changes over time, and why.

 

West Branch Neversink River

West Branch Nev­ersink Riv­er

Most peo­ple don’t real­ize how much is actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing in a stream ecosys­tem. Streams are absolute­ly buzzing with the life of flo­ra and fau­na, and they are also in con­stant motion, try­ing to reach ener­gy equi­lib­ri­um. The old adage that “You nev­er step in the same riv­er twice”, rings true as streams are con­stant­ly chang­ing and adjust­ing their sed­i­ment mate­ri­als, plant mate­ri­als, water flow and chan­nel path.

Caddisfly Larvae Casings on a Rock in the Neversink River

Cad­dis­fly Lar­vae Cas­ings on a Rock in the Nev­ersink Riv­er

As an edu­ca­tor, I tend to look at stream ecosys­tems as a whole sys­tem of many parts, much like a puz­zle that makes up a whole pic­ture. I want to explore how the ecosys­tem works and why we con­duct research to help oth­ers under­stand the use and impor­tance of this work. The research and train­ing we con­duct helps man­agers bet­ter under­stand stream chan­nel struc­tures, sta­bil­i­ty and poten­tial for ero­sion that may impact human infra­struc­ture, and water qual­i­ty down riv­er. Stream research also helps sci­en­tists and engi­neers to rec­og­nize how healthy and sta­ble streams work so that they can uti­lize that infor­ma­tion and data to sta­bi­lize and restore streams with struc­ture and ero­sion prob­lems in oth­er places.

Neversink River - Cross Section Survey

Nev­ersink Riv­er — Cross Sec­tion Sur­vey

Every­thing we do in and around streams has an impact on them. For this rea­son, we strive to under­stand how they work and change so that we can reduce neg­a­tive impacts when our lives and work, and their move­ment con­verge. Wad­ing across the rocks of a rush­ing stream while try­ing to take mea­sure­ments for stream data can teach a per­son a lot of respect for the pow­er of mov­ing water.  Trees that fall into the stream also impact its struc­ture, flow, sta­bil­i­ty, and pro­vide crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant habi­tat for aquat­ic life such as fish and insects. The stream I was stand­ing in wasn’t very wide, but its geo­mor­phic struc­ture was incred­i­ble with a wall of bedrock on one side of the stream, and a mound of small rocks on the oth­er side. It was a stun­ning place to spend a cou­ple days learn­ing and col­lect­ing data that will be use­ful for research and restora­tion projects in the future.

Neversink River - Bedrock wall

Nev­ersink Riv­er — Bedrock wall

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