Clean water is not enough

  • By Philip Pirwitz Enterprise reporter
  • Thursday, August 21, 2008 12:05pm

Ever consider that pollution and pollutants are not one and the same?

At a recent Streamkeeper event held at the Adopt-A-Stream Foundation’s NW Stream Center at McCollum Park on Aug. 15, University of Washington Professor Emeritus of fishery and biology James Karr argued that differentiating between the two is the first important step to improving the health of local streams.

“Pollutants are any substance added to the waters by humans,” Karr explained during his morning lecture to a group of 30 natural resource professionals, educators, and stream monitoring volunteers. “Pollution is any human-induced alteration of the integrity of the water.”

Whereas pollutants are mostly chemical in nature, Karr described pollution to include any change to the natural state of a stream — that includes the removal of biology via fishing or other recreational activities, alteration of the landscape in the formation of channels, and other unnatural land use like city building and farm irrigation. Even the introduction of nonnative plants or animals into a stream system can cause unforeseen consequences. These matters are rarely considered when organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency examine the causes of stream degradation.

“There is an obsession with measuring the chemistry of the water,” Karr said. “They should look at the biology as much. The EPA has said ‘we’re not responsible for biology.’ My mission is to convince them otherwise.”

In order to properly monitor the biology of a stream, Karr proposed a couple of steps that can be taken immediately.

“If you said, ‘Doctor, my pet is ill – he has a temperature of 106 degrees,’ the doctor would ask what kind of pet it was,” Karr said. “If you had a hummingbird, it would be fine. Large and small streams are different organisms,” and separate standards need to be made. The same can be said about high elevation streams and those close to sea level.

Once the health of the stream has been classified as in danger, how would one go about fixing it?

“Doctors wouldn’t treat you without a chart of your history,” Karr said. “We cannot treat streams without knowing its original, pristine condition.” Electrocardiograms of a sort are needed for every stream, healthy and hurting alike.

After his morning presentation, Karr showed the group one possible way to create a stream health report using — of all things — bugs. No longer used only to gross out little sisters, the presence of certain types of bugs in the water, from flies to reptiles, can determine the relative health of the stream.

After lunch, Karr and Adopt-a-Stream Foundation Director Tom Murdoch took the class to nearby streams to show them how to search for these critters. It’s a tool many in attendance plan to put to good use, like Snohomish County Watershed Steward Cindy Flint.

“I like to take homeowners back to their creek and show them how to determine the health of the river,” Flint said. “They are not sure how much life is out there.”

That is exactly the type of inspiration Murdoch hopes a “Streamkeeper” event will provide.

“We want to instill in people a sense of stewardship,” Murdoch said during Friday’s lunch. “You can basically earn a PhD and have a little fun while you’re at it.”

“Streamkeeper” events, found at, are by no means for professionals only. Youth classes are available, after which Murdoch promises “every kid will know what a watershed is.” As more locals learn how to correctly record the health of their streams, the sooner appropriate action can be taken to prevent degradation.

“We want people to share what they’ve learned with friends and neighbors, along with state officials,” Murdoch said.

Karr, too, expressed his desire to penetrate the “impervious surface of state leaders and agencies unable to look into the future” and raise biological factors equal to chemical.

“Biological levels are a lot more compelling than, ‘Oh, the phosphorus levels are 3 instead of 5,’” Karr said.

Species are becoming rare to extinct in streams all across the country, Karr said, and that decline will continue until both pollutants and pollution are not only understood, but controlled.

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