Public Health: Researching a Stream Segment

Collect data on an impaired local body of water.


Background

Field biologists are responsible for collecting and analyzing data for public health concerns such as water pollution, and publishing reports for public record that describe the state of these public waterways and whether they are meeting minimum safety standards. Field biologists who collect information relating to public health concerns typically work for municipal, state or federal regulatory agencies, or sometimes private firms. They may collect information related to public health concerns, such as pathogenic bacteria in waterways. In this case biologists and watershed managers would be responsible for maintaining ongoing sampling efforts, implementing restoration efforts, and compiling regular reports to the state agency or the US EPA through guidelines outlined in the Clean Water Act.

A watershed protection plan (WPP) is a coordinated framework for implementing prioritized and integrated water quality protection and restoration strategies (Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board). In order to come up with a WPP, many individuals work together to collect and analyze data on the stream segment. A WPP is distributed to local/municipal governments, river authorities, and other infrastructure organizations. A 5-10 year plan can have major impact on communities near the stream segment.

In this case biologists and watershed managers would be responsible for maintaining ongoing sampling efforts, implementing restoration efforts, and compiling regular reports through the state agency and the US EPA according to guidelines outlined in the Clean Water Act.

The Process of Creating a Watershed Protection Plan

  1. Collect data on why the body of water is impaired. If possible, use available mapping / GIS datasets & existing reports .
  2. Communicate the data in the form of a fact sheet that answers:
    • How long is the stream segment?
    • How many acres?
    • What is the population?
    • What is the impairment?
  3. Come up with a plan to address the impairment, including possible sources.
  4. Decide on metrics for success.

The Exercise

Your Role:

For this sim, you are an Environmental Scientist in Texas tasked with providing research on a stream segment that is considered “impaired”, or not meeting water quality standards set by the USEPA and the state agency that manages water quality, the TCEQ. You are responsible for compiling all available data on these segments to assist in the development of a Watershed Protection Plan. Typically, a researcher would use field samples, lab analyses and GIS technology to assess change over time; for the purposes of this job sim, please refer to publicly-available resources included for these tasks.

Task 1 – Research an impaired stream segment

Pick a stream segment that is listed as “impaired” on the most current state report to the US EPA. For this exercise you will reference the Draft 2016 Texas Integrated Report for the Clean Water Act, found at the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ): https://www.tceq.texas.gov/waterquality/assessment/16twqi/16txir.

You can access reports from previous years here: https://www.tceq.texas.gov/waterquality/assessment.

Here’s an example of what to look for:

https://www.tceq.texas.gov/waterquality/assessment/16twqi/16txir

Once you have chosen your target impaired stream segment, you will gather information about that segment relating to the category for impairment (e.g., bacteria). You will look for information on the segment and its larger watershed. Note how these features have changed over time by looking at previous years’ reports and other available data (e.g., population maps and land cover and land use) and identify likely causes for pollutants (e.g. wastewater outfalls, permits for sanitary sewer overflows or animal feeding operations, etc.). Use this information to characterize the watershed and identify possible sources for the impairment.

Task 2 – Create a fact sheet that summarizes your research based on the information and resources from Task 1.

Fact sheets will vary and depend on the type of impairment, the individual state protocols and available data, but ultimately you choose the information you want to share about that region or watershed for public record. The agencies or organizations that you work with may request specific information, but for this sim, include information that you care about.

The final fact sheet can include raw data from water quality reporting tools, images and maps generated from WikiWatershed or others, as well as any information from previous reports, and can be formatted as bullet points. Also include your conclusions and ideas for how this impairment could be addressed.

Sample Steps for Task 1:

  1. Using the Texas Integrated Report, choose your target stream segments and determine designated impairment parameter:
    • ex: Town Creek and Quinlan Creek near Kerrville, TX, designated impaired for parameter: bacteria
  2. Find supporting material regarding impairment:
    • ex: Technical Support Document (TCEQ PDF) characterizing these two impaired segments, and demonstrating the kind of data that would be available publicly.
  3. Visit publicly accessible state databases to determine levels of pollutants:
  4. Characterize the larger watershed by identifying factors that could contribute to water quality in your target segment. Examples would be land cover (vegetation), land use, climate, and density of human and animal populations, among others. This is your chance to play water detective and catch the culprits!
    • A great tool for this is WikiWatershed (www.wikiwatershed.org) which makes characterizing any watershed easy and user-friendly.
https://modelmywatershed.org

For more detailed information and data records, please refer back to the state and federal reports mentioned in Task 1.


Skills Used to Perform This Task:

  • Field work – collecting data
  • Fact gathering
  • Synthesis

Skills Used in This Field:

  • Big-picture thinking
  • Coordinating with multiple groups
  • Patience

Other Tasks that Field Researchers Do:

  • Collect field samples of water quality to assess change over time and impacts of remediation efforts (WPP)
  • Manage team of interns and volunteers who also collect field water quality samples
  • Maintain field testing equipment, run analyses in the laboratory for field samples, and compile information for local reports
  • Analyze resulting data (e.g. trend analysis, bacterial geomean change over time, etc.) to include in regular state and federal reports

Resources


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Simulation author: Kelly Albus, PhD

Simulation vetted by professionals in the North Texas area.