Thousands of students just like you spend a day rafting and exploring Alberta Rivers each year. These students enjoy an amazing field trip as crewmembers aboard a floating science laboratory!
Many parents and teachers have helped make RiverWatch a success. After a day helping supervise on the river, adults often say, "We never did anything like this when we were in school! " We're always pleased with what they're saying about RiverWatch.
We're very proud that RiverWatch Science was recognized with the 1997 Prime Minister's National Award for Teaching Excellence. It's hard to top that!
"Through your dedication and skill, you have opened doors for these young people to exciting studies and careers, and in turn are doing your country a great service. You are an inspiration to fellow educators and all those involved with Canadian youth. Please accept my warmest congratulations and best wishes for continued success."The Right Honourable Jean Chretien
RiverWatch is designed to give you real-life and hands-on experience with environmental science. Participants are asked to accept four challenges.
RiverWatch isn't just a field trip with friends! It isn't just for a report card mark, either. Your assignment is to research, create and present a report that answers the question:
"Is this river healthy?"
The answer to this "big question" requires some first-hand observations of the river. However, there are several activities that will help you get started even before the field trip.
The more prepared you are ahead of time, the more you'll get out of your field trip experience.
RiverWatch Science is more than a one-day field trip on a river. Our students are helping make a difference to the environment by taking care of rivers!
Here's the scale of river health we use:
Here's what you'll need to do to answer the "one big question"
We're glad that you're planning to be a part of RiverWatch! Together, we can make a difference in the health of our rivers.
You'll need to study the section "How to Monitor" before going on a RiverWatch Field Trip. Monitoring is exactly what you'll be doing during your field trip.
Oxygen is an element essential to all living things. Dissolved oxygen is perhaps the most important abiotic or non-living factor affecting aquatic communities such as rivers. Fish and many macroinvertebrates nymphs and larvae are equipped with gills to extract oxygen from the water they live in.
Pre-packaged chemistry test kits are used to measure the concentration of dissolved oxygen. The amount of oxygen dissolving in water is affected by temperature, mixing, decay and pollution. Low levels of dissolved oxygen are harmful to many species and can indicate that pollution has entered the water.
Understanding the basic science of dissolved oxygen will help you interpret the data collected from your local river. Take a deep breath and click below to learn more about dissolved oxygen!
Simply put, phosphorus makes life on earth possible. It is an important plant fertilizer and animals require it for:
Phosphorus is normally present in rivers at low concentrations. Too much dissolved phosphorus can set off a chain of undesirable events:
High levels of dissolved phosphorus are an indicator of pollution. Pre-packaged chemistry kits can be used to measure the concentration of dissolved phosphorus. Excessive phosphorus can enter a river from two major sources:
An understanding of basic phosphorus science can help interpret data collected from local rivers. Click below to learn more about phosphorus and its affects on aquatic ecosystems!
Viewing wildlife is one of the best things about spending time along a river. Even aquatic invertebrates - the "bugs" living at the bottom of a river - are interesting if you take a close look at them!
The kinds of invertebrates found in a river can tell you a lot about the water quality. Click below to learn more about aquatic invertebrates!
RiverWatch makes for a field trip that you'll never forget!
These good things, however, are just icing on the cake. The basic and most important things about a RiverWatch Field Trip are personal safety and data collection.
Here are good tips on what to do "On the River!"
Your goal "on the river" is to collect as much scientific data as you can during one short day. Don't get distracted by the fun of a day spent rafting with your friends.
Remember that the purpose of the day is gather observations that will help answer the "big question"
Is this river healthy?
Here are some tips that will help you investigate the health of your local river
Professional ecologists around the world use the same science equipment that you'll use during a River Watch Field Trip. You'll perform real science to collect real data. Be very careful and make the most accurate measurements you can.
Listen carefully to the science talk given by your raft guide. If measurements are done incorrectly, in a hurry or without real care and accuracy, the purpose of the day will be lost.
You'll never get another one-day opportunity like this. Don't be shy - this is your day and your education! Get involved!
Be sure to ask questions and investigate! Don't stand around waiting - seize the day! Don't wait for the answers to come to you - go looking for answers!
You have professional guides, rafts and science kits at your disposal for an entire day - use these resources! River Watch is at your service.
When a classmate asks a question, listen to the answer! They may have thought of something that you need to know.
Before leaving a study site, look at the data sheet and compare the results with the previous sample site data.
One of our RiverWatch students noticed that they never saw seagulls flying over a bay along the river. When they asked me why this never happened, I said, "That's easy… … because then they'd be "bagels"!
Your goal "on the river" is to learn as much as you can during one short day. You're part of a team looking for the answer to this one question:
Remember the purpose of the day! It's not "wait around until someone tells me what to do". It's "What can I do to get a great education?"
Pitch-in and be sure that you can be proud of your contributions all day long. It's a nice feeling to be part of a team.
Here are a few tips that will help you "pitch-in"!
You have a "big question" to answer. Remember the purpose of the day! Well…what is it? Hope you haven't forgotten already! Go ahead, say it!
Your team is responsible for collecting data at each study site. Do your part and then more.
Check the completeness of the data sheet before repacking the science kit. Don't miss a piece of data in the rush to get going!
When your guide asks for an assistant or needs something done, volunteer!
Finish all the tests at each site, even if you have to volunteer to do an extra test.
If someone notices that an observation is missing from the data sheet, be a "field trip hero" and volunteer to do the extra test.
Do your assigned science test and then check back with the guide. There may be something else that you can help with.
Check around for equipment or clothing that needs packing back into the raft. Lookout for other people's lost belongings!
Pick-up litter - even if someone else left it or left it a long time ago. We're here to help take care of the river!
We meet a lot of interesting people along the river, and a lot of them are really interested in what we're doing. It's a good policy to be polite, helpful and kind at all times.
Wave or say hello to people that we meet.
I'm writing down observations for RiverWatch, Sir! I'd love to tell you about the health of this river
Clean-up your own litter during snacks, lunch or science tests.
We observe and handle a lot of wildlife in one day.
Checking on the environmental health of a river requires us to "get close and personal" with moving water. Rivers, river valleys and wildlife are certainly beautiful and enjoyable - as long as you keep "safety first"!
Here are the main safety considerations that make for a great day on the river!
Always wear a personal floatation device (PFD) at all times. The PFD must be zipped, clipped and tied.
Paddles are only used for paddling. Avoid splashing, mock sword fights and flicking rocks into the river.
Look first and be careful with paddles.
There is always a slim chance that paddlers and waders may fall into the water. Here are some thoughts on this subject…
You'll be outdoors for almost the entire day during a River Watch Field Trip. There are no stores along the way and no place to warm-up indoors. You'll have to come prepared to look after all your own food, water and clothing needs.
We supply rubber boots and personal floatation devices to everyone before the trip starts. If it is cool, windy or lightly raining, we can also supply everyone with rain jackets.
You'll need to consider bringing the following items:
Common Clothing Mistakes
Here are some of the common clothing mistakes that you'll want to avoid for a day with River Watch:
A River Guide's Advice
If you're unsure about any part of RiverWatch, the best place to get information is from an expert source - a RiverWatch guide. These skilled professionals make a living being on the river, day after day, in good or bad weather.
Here's what one guide - Stu - recommends for staying comfortable out on the river:
A typical day at River Watch can involve any type of weather. Enjoying the day may come down to staying warm and dry.
The secret to staying comfortable out on the river is having the right clothes and then constantly adding or losing layers as the weather changes. Here's what I mean about clothes constantly going on and coming off…
I'll start off most days with a basic pair of pants, a long sleeved shirt, a sweater and windproof jacket. If it's chilly, I'll start with my long underwear and also throw on a toque.
After we've overviewed the day and prepped for the trip with the whole group, I'll usually lose the sweater (a PFD will add a little extra insulation), but keep a light jacket on to keep out the wind. I always have a pair of gloves handy, because paddling is cold on the hands even on good mornings.
If the sun peaks out, out comes the sun hat and shorts. If the winds pick up and the clouds come in, I'll put on my storm jacket and storm pants to keep myself dry during any rain.
Paddling Generates Heat
My sweater is a key ingredient I take on and off as my activity level changes. For example, if we're working hard paddling the rafts, I won't need the sweater to keep warm. In contrast, I'll put it on while I'm sitting down for lunch so that I don't lose all the warmth I generated while paddling.
I bring two sweaters on days that look like one of those long rainy days. There's nothing worse than sitting on a raft on the river, being wet and having a cold wind come along and make you feel miserable.
Being able to layer-up under a good rain jacket (which River Watch can provide you for the day), throw on a toque and a pair of gloves makes it hard for even the toughest weather to ruin the day.
Inevitably, my feet get wet, so having a spare pair of wool socks to switch into part way through the trip is icing on the cake!
Things To Leave At Home
You'll be outside and around water for an entire day with RiverWatch. You don't need to bring anything that might be damaged by water, otherwise cause problems or that we can supply for you.
You should leave these things at home…
Things that can be damaged by water…
Things that can cause problems…
Things that we can supply…
Your RiverWatch Field Trip is only one short day out on the river, but it's a very rich source of information. You'll have more work to do "back at the lab".
Work-Up The Data
This is how real science works! Field research is only one small part of any project. It takes considerable time, thought and organization to "work-up the data" when a scientist heads "back to the lab".
Your goal back-at-the-lab is to develop and present a quality report that answers the question:
Here's a few tips for working "Back at the Lab!"
If things go according to plan, you'll finish the RiverWatch Field Trip and head back to school with an accurate and complete data sheet.
Your teacher will assign one or more students to carefully enter the data sheet observations into the on-line database. This task will insure that your data is not lost and that it remains available for everyone's use now and into the future!
Once the data is entered on-line, take a moment to congratulate yourself! You've made a valuable contribution towards understanding and taking care of Alberta Rivers!
Once your data is entered into the on-line database, the fun begins! Here's where you use your brainpower to make sense of all those numbers.
In the "River Data and Maps" section of this web site, choose "Graph Collected Data" to work with all the river data entered by the thousands of students before you. You'll need to choose and graph the data best suited to understanding the health of your river.
Compare the chart trends and look for connections between different abiotic and biotic factors. You can compare any sets of data that you think might help you understand the river.
Once you have an answer to the question, "Is this river healthy?" you'll need to make a report that summarizes what you did, what you found out and what you conclude and recommend.
Work alone, with a partner, with a raft group or as an entire class to make your report.
You can choose from a variety of report styles such as a(n):
...or any other format that your teacher approves.
What do you do with your finished report? Yes, your teacher will likely want it "handed-in" for a mark, but you also have the opportunity to present your report to a lot of other interested people:
...or any other person or organization your teacher approves.
Share Your Report!
The bottom line is share your report - you worked hard to produce it! Get some mileage out of it!
Stewardship refers to the way we each care for our rivers. Two things we can do to help involve raising awareness and lifestyle changes.
Do something positive with your "State of the River" report. Use it to produce positive conservation and stewardship messages that can be targeted at other students in your school, your own family, your community or city.
Try your hand at raising awareness through a(n):
...or any other format approved by your teacher.
Over time, see if you can measure any results. How many people heard or saw your report or eco-message?
There are lots of things you can do to change your lifestyle and reduce your impact on rivers.
Before going on the raft trip with RiverWatch, there are a lot of things to do! It's only one day on the river but it's packed full of value! The more prepared you are, the more fun and benefit you'll get out of the day.
Here's a "Things-to-Do" list to help you get ready. Once you've completed everything on the list, you'll have earned a RiverWatch Boarding Pass!
Explore "Student Information"
Discuss the trip newsletter with parents
Organize all gear for a day on the river
Water Quality Chemistry
Water is a very good solvent. In fact, pure water is seldom found in nature because it readily dissolves the many chemicals that wash off the land or pour out of effluent pipes.
Most Canadians use surface water from ponds, lakes or rivers for drinking and household use. Clean water is so important to healthy communities. Measuring the concentration of a few key chemicals can help indicate river water quality.
Is your river healthy?
The air that we breathe every second of every day is composed of 21% molecular oxygen gas (O2). This means that about one out of every five molecules in the atmosphere is an oxygen molecule (particle).
Approximately 75% of the atmospheric oxygen is produced by one-celled plants (phytoplankton) floating in the oceans. Oxygen is required by all living things, as well as the processes of combustion (burning) and oxidation (rusting of iron).
What then, is dissolved oxygen? Click below to learn more!
Dissolved oxygen is merely the oxygen molecules that have mixed in with water molecules. It gets there by diffusing from the air; when trapped by aeration or bubbling; and as a waste product from green plant photosynthesis.
Oxygen gas dissolves in water much like the carbon dioxide responsible for the fizz in a can of soda pop. Carbon dioxide (CO2), however, is 200 times more soluble in water than oxygen.
Oxygen is not very soluble and occurs dissolved in only trace amounts. The tiny amounts of dissolved oxygen are measured in the range of 1-14 milligrams per litre (mg/L). While one out of every five molecules in the atmosphere is oxygen, in water, only 1-14 molecules out of a million are oxygen. Said another way, the concentration of dissolved oxygen is 1-14 parts per million (ppm).
Note: The concentration units of mg/L and ppm are equivalent. (mg/L = ppm)
Aquatic organisms such as fish and macroinvertebrates rely on gills for breathing dissolved oxygen. Bacteria also use oxygen when they decompose dead organisms. So far, however, no one has devised a way for humans to extract oxygen from water during a dive.
Oxygen is only slightly soluble. Several abiotic (non-living) and biotic (living) processes help to increase the amount of dissolved oxygen.
Abiotic Factors That Increase Dissolved Oxygen
Biotic Factors That Increase Dissolved Oxygen
During photosynthesis, plants use sunlight in a reaction with carbondioxide and water. The result is the production of glucose (sugar) andthe release of oxygen gas.
6CO2(g) + 6H2O(l) + sunlight --> C6H12O6(s) + 6O2(g)
Oxygen is only slightly soluble at the best of times. Compounding this problem are several abiotic (non-living) and biotic (living) processes that actually decrease the amount of dissolved oxygen.
Abiotic Factors That Decrease Dissolved Oxygen
Biotic Factors That Decrease Dissolved Oxygen
C6H12O6(s) + 6O2(g) + enzymes --> 6CO2(g) + 6H2O(l) + energy
There are two main processes occurring in all ecosystems - energy flow and material cycling. Oxygen and carbon dioxide are cycled in a symbiotic relationship (mutualism) between plants, animals and bacteria. This carbon-oxygen cycle operates in water in much the same way as it does on land:
Three natural processes cause the cycling of oxygen and carbon dioxide in aquatic ecosystems:
High levels of dissolved oxygen are necessary to maintain diversity in aquatic communities. High dissolved oxygen levels can even make drinking water taste better. It's therefore important to understand the human activities that might cause reduced dissolved oxygen levels.
Several human activities can affect the oxygen concentrations in a river:
This organic loading may result in low oxygen levels as bacteria decompose the material. When populations of microscopic decomposers rapidly increase, a situation of high biological oxygen demand (B.O.D.) is created. Under extreme conditions of high B.O.D., anaerobic bacteria produce hydrogen sulfide gas with a rotten egg smell.
Dissolved oxygen levels affect the survival of aquatic organisms. Trout and the nymphs of mayflies or stoneflies are found only in water with high oxygen concentrations.
If dissolved oxygen levels are low, only organisms such as leeches, snails and roundworms can survive. Fish and stonefly nymphs die while trapped in water with decreased oxygen levels. Low levels of dissolved oxygen can result in significant fish kills, especially in late summer or during the winter.
Dissolved oxygen levels can be tested with portable chemistry kits. Using the kits require several steps and careful attention to instructions.
The dissolved oxygen (DO) test requires the addition of four chemicals and so becomes fairly complicated. Careful attention to a set of detailed instructions is required. The dissolved oxygen test kit uses:
WARNING: The chemicals in this kit may be hazardous to the health and safety of the user if inappropriately handled.
WARNING: The chemicals in this kit may be hazardous to the health and safety of the user if inappropriately handled. Please read all warnings carefully before performing the test and use appropriate safety equipment.
Higher-level science classes may wish to take the Dissolved Oxygen Test one step further and calculate Biological Oxygen Demand.
Remember, organic material (pulp, cattle manure, vegetable peels, blood, leaves, grass) can be a form of pollution entering rivers from pulp mills, feedlots, dairies, food-processing plants, meatpacking plants, forests and lawns. When bacteria decompose this material, oxygen is removed from the water and aquatic life may be harmed.
To perform the B.O.D. Test, the first sample of river water is tested on-site for dissolved oxygen. Then, a second sample of river water is sealed without bubbles, covered to prevent sunlight access and taken back to school.
Adapted from "Field Manual for Global Low-Cost Water Quality Monitoring".
Higher-level science classes will be interested in the balanced chemical equations for each step of the dissolved oxygen test. The reactions for the Modified Winkler Method or Iodometric Method are described below.
To start the Dissolved Oxygen (DO) Test, the reagents from the two foil packets are added into the river sample. This step combines manganese (II) sulfate from DO Packet #1 with lithium hydroxide base contained in DO Packet #2. Manganese (II) hydroxide is temporarily produced along with lithium sulfate.
Dissolved oxygen in the river water then reacts immediately with the manganese (II) hydroxide to produce an orange manganese (II) oxide floc that gradually settles to the bottom of the sample bottle.
The orange manganese (II) oxide floc reacts with the potassium iodide from Reagent #2 and the sulfamic acid now added by Powder Pillow #3. This releases free iodine with a brownish colour. The dissolved oxygen is now "fixed", further air bubbles are not a problem and the final titration step can be delayed up to 8 hours. The focus for remaining procedures is now the iodine, not the oxygen.
With the final titration step, the focus is on the iodine equivalent rather than on the original molecular oxygen. Each drop of titrant added to the iodine indicates that a greater amount of dissolved oxygen was present in the original river water. The Sodium Thiosulfate Solution is titrated drop-by-drop, reducing the iodine back to its ionic form and changing the colour from yellow-brown to clear.
Measuring dissolved oxygen is one of the most important, if not the most important, tests of water quality for aquatic life. High levels of dissolved oxygen can indicate good water quality and a healthy ecosystem; lower levels can be an indication of pollution and environmental stress.
Adapted from "RiverWatch Network Water Sampling and Analysis Manual"
There are many slightly different interpretations of dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations, but the trend is clear. Within the possible range of 1-14 mg/L...
Here is a selection of interpretations for dissolved oxygen results:
Try answering the following review questions. If you have trouble, all the answers can be found by re-reading the previous section.
HACH Phenol Red Test Kit pH range 6.5-8.5
A Guide for Interpreting pH Levels
The pH is used to measure the relative acidity of solutions such as water.
Solution with a pH greater than 7.0 is considered to be basic or alkaline. The greater the pH, the greater the alkalinity.
Distilled water has a pH of 7.0. This is considered neutral.
Solutions with a pH level less than 7.0 are considered to be acidic. The lower the pH, the more acidic the solution.
A pH range of 6.5 - 8.5 is often considered safe for fish and aquatic invertebrates.
HACH Test Kit Amonia Nitrogen Range 0-3 mg/L
Adapted from "Field Manual for Global Low-Cost Water Quality Monitoring"
The Canadian Water Quality Guidelines (CWQG) for the Protection of Aquatic Life suggest that total ammonia concentrations for freshwater should be no more than 1.3-2.2 mg/L.
Phosphorus occurs most commonly bonded with oxygen atoms to form a phosphate. Phosphates are essential chemicals found naturally in all living organisms, soil and water. For example, bones contain calcium phosphate.
Surface water supports the growth of microscopic floating organisms called plankton. One type of plankton is algae. The growth of algae and aquatic plants requires phosphates.
Humans use phosphates in dental cements, water softeners, detergents, rust proofing and processed foods. Phosphoric acid is used in cola soft drinks. Dicalcium phosphate is a food supplement for cattle. Calcium phosphate is an ingredient in plant fertilizers.
Phosphorus is a chemical element identified with the symbol (P). It was discovered in 1669 by the German chemist Henning Brand who prepared it from urine samples.
Phosphorus is the 11th most abundant element in the earth's crust and the second most abundant mineral in the human body. Foods containing high amounts of phosphorus include dairy products, eggs, fish, dried fruit, meat, garlic, nuts and whole grains. North Americans ingest about 1500 milligrams of phosphorus daily, which is almost twice the recommended allowance.
Phosphorus combines readily with oxygen to form oxides, phosphates and a mineral called apatite. The phosphorus required by living things is combined with oxygen and called a phosphate (PO4-3). Phosphates are found dissolved in water (inorganic phosphates) and within living tissue (organic phosphates).
There are two main processes occurring in all ecosystems - energy flow and material cycling. Phosphorus is cycled between living organisms and the earth's crust as energy flows through a food web.
Phosphorus in Living Organisms
In aquatic ecosystems, the short-term cycling of phosphorus is through the food web of living organisms.
Phosphorus in the Earth's Crust
During the long-term cycling of phosphorus in the Earth's crust, phosphorus leaches out of soil and weathers out of rock. This inorganic phosphorus flows downstream and eventually accumulates at the bottom of rivers, lakes and oceans.
If left undisturbed for millions of years, bottom sediments transform into phosphorus-containing rock.
"Stored" phosphorus may return again to the surface during the uplifting of mountains, during the mining of potash or when bottom sediments are disturbed.
The phosphorus cycle starts again as water erodes the uplifted phosphorus rock.
The Phosphorus Cycle
Phosphorus moves between plants, animals, bacteria, rock, soil and water. This is called a biogeochemical cycle. Three natural processes contribute to this cycling of phosphorus - food webs, decomposition and the rock cycle.
The phosphorus in a river is either dissolved in solution or attached to suspended and settled particles. There are special challenges to measuring this phosphorus and there are many kinds of phosphorus test kits to choose from. Click below to learn more about choosing and using phosphorus test kits!
There are several types of phosphorus and each comes with a specialized and recommended test kit. Here are some of the factors to consider when choosing and using a phosphorus test kit.
Colour Comparator Kits
Some phosphorus detecting equipment is more appropriate for school use. Colour comparators can be used successfully with school groups.
Detecting Low Concentrations
Testing for phosphorus is always challenging because it is often found in very low concentrations of less than 1.0 mg/L. Careful procedures and clean equipment are required to obtain accurate results.
The procedures in all phosphorus test kits eventually finish with the measuring of orthophosphate concentration.
The orthophosphate test is the easiest phosphorus test to perform and is appropriate for clear rivers carrying low amounts of organic material. This simple test can measure low concentrations of total orthophosphates (PO4-3) in the range of 0 -1 mg/L.
The Hach Orthophosphate Kit causes a chemical reaction to occur in a sample of river water. This chemical reaction is evidenced by a colour change and is measured using a colour comparator.
There is a source of error introduced with this test because of the difficulty in comparing and matching colours. Fainter colours at lower concentrations are hardest to match. Observers should get a second opinion when judging colour matches.
This test kit uses the contents of one chemical powder packet added to a river water sample.
Measuring river phosphate levels is one of the important tests of water quality for aquatic life. High levels of dissolved phosphates can indicate poor water quality, pollution and environmental stress.
Phosphorus is an essential nutrient that is quickly taken up and "stored" by plants and animals. Phosphates "free" in the environment are usually found dissolved in only low concentrations. High amounts of orthophosphate may indicate the presence of chemical fertilizers, polluted storm water run-off, poorly treated sewage or leaking septic systems.
After reading all the previous information about phosphorus and phosphorus testing, you should be able to answer the following questions. If you have difficulty, all of the answers can be found by re-reading this section or by asking questions.
RiverWatch uses the patented Coliscan Easygel method to test for the presence of coliform bacteria. The growth-medium in the bottles contains inhibitors for non-coliform bacteria and pigment colors that identify coliform bacteria.
Rivers have a life cycle much like a living organism. They are born from meltwater and they grow physically larger with each tributary stream that joins their flow. They mature as they pass through different landscapes and add chemical "memories" from each place they visit. They finish their life journey at the oceans and give rise to another generation of rivers through the water cycle.
Changes in the life and health of a river affect the organisms that live there. Some of these changes occur naturally; some of them are influenced by people. Rivers can be healthy or unhealthy at any stage of their life.
At some point in the life of a river, they eventually pass through our communities. We can visit briefly before seeing them off again on their journey to the ocean. These visits provide us with the opportunity to ask, "How are you doing?"
Learning how to monitor river health is a first step in caring for our rivers.
rivers is affected by the sheer combined impact of so many of us. Just look at everyone who uses rivers - anglers, boaters, dams, industries, agriculture, towns and cities.
RiverWatch is about using chemical and biological monitoring as a first step in taking care of rivers.
How can people help care for rivers?
The First Step
The first step in taking care of rivers is to become more aware. "Is your river healthy?" How would you know the answer to this question? RiverWatch students help by collecting science data from their local river.
RiverWatch is real science and students do careful research. They return to school and examine the data for patterns or changes in river health. Their findings are presented in a "State of the River Report".
Long Term Study
The science data collected by RiverWatch is important. Each day of observations is added to a database, and the data collected by many students over many years helps identify trends and changes in river health. Each new class of students contributes to a growing understanding of Alberta Rivers.
Last but not least, RiverWatch students pitch-in and help rivers through a commitment to positive, personal environmental action. They change the way that they, their family and their community use and enjoy Alberta Rivers!
"Anything else you're interested in is not going to happen if you can't breathe the air and drink the water. Don't sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet." --Carl Sagan
Invertebrate Background Information
The world of aquatic invertebrates is totally unknown to most people. Capturing the tiny "critters" living in a river involves wading in with a net or using specialized equipment. Needless to say, capturing aquatic invertebrates is an unusual activity done mostly by anglers, scientists and science students!
Click below to learn more about aquatic invertebrate biology!
Approximately 5% of insects spend all or part of their life cycle in water. The immature stages of these aquatic insects often have streamlined bodies and they breathe with gills.
There are two types of insect life cycles. Complete metamorphosis includes a larvae and pupaes stage. Incomplete metamorphosis includes only a nymph stage.
Nymphs are a feeding stage that look like a small copy of the adult but with wingpads and not wings. Nymphs gradually grow larger by shedding their hard, confining exoskeleton. The last moult is done at the water's surface or out on rocks and plants as their new wings unfold.
Larvae are a feeding stage that looks like fat grubs or caterpillars. Larvae appear very different from their final winged adult stage. These "ugly ducklings" pupate before changing into beautiful flying adults.
Pupae are a non-feeding stage much like a moth cocoon or a butterfly chrysalis. During pupation, aquatic larvae "hide-out" and transform into an adult stage with wings. A case or mummy-like covering may protect the pupae.
A healthy river has many different invertebrates feeding in many different ways. Diversity is a characteristic of stable, healthy ecosystems. Aquatic invertebrates can be grouped into four functional feeding groups according to how and what they eat:
ScrapersScrapers are mainly herbivores (plant-eaters). They remove algae, bacteria and fungus growing on the surface of rocks, twigs and leaf debris. Many of these organisms are flattened to better hang onto rocks while they feed in a current. They feed somewhat like a child licking the icing from the top of a cookie.
ShreddersShredders are herbivores that chew on coarse leaves and twigs that have started to decay. This group plays an important role in breaking things down to a size that can be handled by other macroinvertebrates.
Because these herbivores also consume the nutritious decomposer bacteria and fungi present on the decaying leaves, they are really omnivores. This type of feeding is similar to eating rich peanut butter spread on coarse crackers. Most of the food value is in the spread and not in the cracker!
CollectorsCollectors are omnivores that feed on whatever is easiest to find. They gather fine particles that pass by in lowing water (feces, algae, plant and animal fragments) as well as any bacteria attached to this material.
Predators are carnivores that eat small insects, leeches and fish. In turn, these invertebrate predators are often a major food source for other predators such as fish.
Energy flows from the sun through plants and then through each trophic level of a food chain. Food chains start with solar energy captured by green plants that use photosynthesis to produce simple sugars. Oxygen produced as a by-product is an added bonus for all animals!
Only about 10% of the energy in one level of a food pyramid is passed along to the next level as food. Energy is used up in growing, repair, finding food, reproduction and heat loss.
Collecting aquatic invertebrates is a fun and interesting activity that can reveal useful information about the health of a river. The presence or absence of certain types of invertebrates can indicate the effects of pollution.
Collection SitesVarious invertebrates are adapted for life in areas with different river bottoms and water that may be shallow or deep, fast or slow. Since most observers don't have time to thoroughly sample all these habitats in one trip, a good idea is to focus areas that feature:
No one likes wading into mud and becoming stuck, and most people avoid wading into fast water that is deeper than their boots. It's obvious from these limitations that the most common choice for sampling sites will not accurately represent all of the habitats found along the length of a river. But, since different habitats have different invertebrates, it is easier to compare results if the same type of habitat is sampled each time. So, good advice would be to sample each time in shallow, moderately flowing water with gravel or rock bottom in order to provide consistency to a monitoring program.
Aquatic invertebrates should be captured by observers wearing rubber boots, hip waders or chest waders, especially if there is a concern over cold water, broken glass or sewage contamination.
Safety should always be the first priority during river monitoring. Observers should wear personal floatation devices (P.F.D.'s) and be under qualified supervision.
Observers collect invertebrates using equipment such as fine-meshed sweep nets, kick nets, Neill cylinders or deepwater artificial samplers (wire cages filled with rocks).
Using a Kick Net
Useful invertebrate information can be obtained with a simple kick net, especially if proper procedures are followed.
Identifying Aquatic Invertebrates
Aquatic invertebrates all look the same to the untrained eye - strange and bizarre! Honestly, with some background information, even the most reluctant observer can learn to appreciate and identify these truly amazing life forms hiding at the bottom of a river.
Taking the time to identifying aquatic invertebrates is worthwhile for several reasons:
Click below to learn how to identify aquatic invertebrates!
Scientists organize living things into a series of categories. This process is called taxonomy. Taxonomy categories are listed below from largest to smallest along with an example that shows how humans are classified as
For quick shoreline and field trip identification, all river organisms can be identified down to the level of phylum, maybe to class, some to orders and only a few to families. Accurate genus and species identification is very complicated and requires the viewing of microscopic features back in a lab.
There are many thousands of species of invertebrates and it helps to know how they are related to each other. Some of the more common river invertebrates are classified below. Special emphasis is placed on the insects that are commonly seen. Click on the highlighted names for more detailed information.
Shoreline identification and the release of live invertebrates is easily done by merely viewing illustrations.
Clams and Mussels
Interpreting Invertebrate Data
Aquatic invertebrates are living indicators of pollution levels. The numbers and types of invertebrates in a river change if pollution is present. Invertebrate data can serve as a quick check of water quality.
A survey of invertebrate populations can reveal information about the health of a river. However, the data may have limited value if collected on only one day of one season in one year. Data is more useful if it can reveal trends spanning an entire season, an entire year, several years or along the length of an entire river.
Pollution is any substance that has a negative effect on living things. There are several categories of pollution including sediment, toxic chemicals, warm water and organic nutrients.
Particles that wash into a river may originate from street runoff during storms or during spring snowmelt. Sediment can also originate from construction areas, trampled banks or flood events.
Sediment pollution does damage when suspended particles gradually settle over the river bottom. The effects of sediment pollution can include:
The effects of toxic pollution can include:
The effects of thermal pollution can include:
Organic Nutrient Pollution
Too much of a good thing can be harmful to life. While nutrients are necessary - like nitrogen and phosphorus - too much can result in massive algae and plant growth. Excessive plant growth can be followed by oxygen depletion as dead plant material decomposes and bacteria uses oxygen. Lower oxygen levels can result in fish kills.
Organic nutrients can originate with human and livestock wastes, feedlots, meat packing plants, sewage and fertilizer runoff from yards and farms.
The effects of organic pollution can include:
Caged canaries were once taken deep inside coal mines to alert the miners of deadly, odourless gases. If a canary died in its cage, it was time for the miners to quickly evacuate to the surface.
In a similar way, benthic (bottom dwelling) invertebrates can indicate the presence of pollution in a river. Some invertebrates are very sensitive to pollution and quickly die off.
Invertebrates are good "bio-indicators" of pollution for several reasons:
It should be noted that surface-breathing invertebrates such as water striders, lunged snails and adult beetles do not depend on dissolved oxygen and therefore have limited use as bio-indicators of pollution. They may be able to live in oxygen poor water by breathing with surface air.
"Chemical measurements are like taking snapshots of the ecosystem, whereas biological measurements are like making a videotape."- Professor David M. Rosenberg University of Manitoba
- Professor David M. Rosenberg University of Manitoba
Invertebrates can be assigned to three groups depending on their tolerance to organic nutrient pollution. In this way, the presence or absence of a particular invertebrate is a bio-indicator of water quality.
After collecting, identifying and counting invertebrate samples, the results can be checked against the pollution tolerance index. A majority of invertebrates tending falling into any one category will indicate a certain level of water quality.
Keep in mind the following points when using this pollution tolerance index:
The numbers and types of invertebrates can change according to the seasons without any relationship to pollution. When analyzing invertebrate data, keep in mind these seasonal considerations:
The characteristics of a river can change naturally without the influence of human activity or pollution. River characteristics can affect invertebrate populations without necessarily indicating the occurrence of organic pollution. When analyzing invertebrate data, keep in mind the effects of these river characteristics:
So, how do you tell if "older" rivers are polluted? That's a good question! The answer probably lies in evaluating a number of factors such as bacteria and surrounding land-use.
After collecting, identifying and counting aquatic invertebrate samples, graphing the results will help illustrate differences or changes.
Differences in the graphed invertebrate data may be caused by the time of day, the season, the type of bottom substrate or by pollution. Were the differences natural or the result of human impact?
The following questions may help with the analysis of invertebrate data: