Chemistry and Flow program grows and changes

HRWC’s Chemistry and Flow Monitoring Program (“Chem and Flow”), formerly the Water Quality Monitoring Program, entered its 20th year this season! The volunteer monitoring effort provides opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to participate in a scientific data collection program that helps HRWC gain a deeper understanding of nutrient and pollutant dynamics in its waterways. Chem and Flow started small and grew into one of the most respected programs of its kind.

Humble beginnings

Chris Riggs and Randy Schneider collect flow measurements during the program’s inaugural year in 2002. credit: HRWC
Chris Riggs and Randy Schneider collect flow measurements during the program’s inaugural year in 2002. credit: HRWC

Chem and Flow began in 2002 with a pilot effort to investigate causes of one specific problem: repeated algae blooms in Ford and Belleville lakes on the border of Washtenaw and Wayne counties. At that time, Michigan’s first nutrient control policy, a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for phosphorus, had been in effect for six years. A TMDL sets a maximum amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can functionally withstand. A collaboration of local governments, the Middle Huron Partners, had also just been established to develop a plan to reduce the algae blooms. The TMDL was based on relatively little stream nutrient data, so the Partners tasked HRWC with developing a strategy to learn more about which streams were the bigger sources of phosphorus.

HRWC designed and tested a pilot study by recruiting a few college students to work with staff and volunteers to collect samples at several sites over a four-month period. Samples were then analyzed at a University of Michigan (UM) lab. Former HRWC staff member Elizabeth Riggs consulted with state agency and university experts to design sample collection protocols and work out sampling logistics. Teams of students, staff, and volunteers would collect water samples and deliver them to the lab for analysis of total phosphorus, nitrate (NO3), and nitrite (NO2). To determine where most of the pollution was coming from, multiple methods were tested for measuring stream flow and converting nutrient concentration results into total loads, which could then be compared with data from earlier sampling. The pilot study was successful, so Elizabeth expanded the program to add sites, sampling outings, and parameters.

Program expansion

The Middle Huron Partners were encouraged by early results, but the desire for more sampling put the program beyond the capacity of the UM lab. The City of Ann Arbor offered the services of their drinking and wastewater lab to fill the gap. HRWC expanded data collection to four additional sites (for 10 total), added a sensor tool to capture direct measurements of additional water quality parameters (temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity), and began to sample stream flow at all sampling locations. Volunteers sampled all the sites once per month from May to September, when nutrient runoff from agricultural fields and lawns is at its peak.

Volunteers Jennifer Carman, Hannah Butterworth, and Otho Ulrich measure in-stream water chemistry at Honey Creek during the 2016 monitoring season. credit: HRWC
Volunteers Jennifer Carman, Hannah Butterworth, and Otho Ulrich measure in-stream water chemistry at Honey Creek during the 2016 monitoring season. credit: HRWC

By 2006, HRWC was able to present a baseline assessment of the status of each of the tributaries to the river leading to Ford and Belleville lakes, helping to guide decisions about where to focus nutrient control strategies and projects. As HRWC worked with the Partners to develop plans for managing stormwater, they decided to add Eschericia coli concentrations to the lab analysis and double the sampling frequency to allow for better trend detection. At the same time, municipalities outside of Washtenaw County were turning to HRWC for collaborative stormwater coordination and guidance. Partnerships formed in Livingston County (Chain of Lakes) and Wayne County (Lower Huron) to develop stormwater plans, which led to similar monitoring programs that followed HRWC’s original model to be employed in 2008. Shortly after, the partners in the Lower Huron agreed to collaborate with municipalities in two neighboring watersheds to form the Alliance of Downriver Watersheds, and HRWC expanded sampling to include sites in those watersheds in 2012.

Continued discovery and exploration

Since 2012, Chem and Flow has gained a reputation for producing reliable and useful water quality data. An analysis of the nutrient data was instrumental in justifying local bans on residential fertilizers containing phosphorus and eventually in support of the statewide ban on phosphorus fertilizers, which took effect in 2012. Chem and Flow data informed studies and investigations of Norton Creek in Oakland County, Honey and Mill creeks in Washtenaw County, and other project locations. Local governments enacted several new water quality policies based on program results and volunteer observations of several illicit discharges to creeks during sampling outings.

In 2015, HRWC began working with a new lab at UM to develop a network of stream flow sensors to better understand nutrient dynamics during storm flows. This was the first effort to enable real-time collection of nutrient and flow data while streams rise and fall through storm cycles.

What’s next?

HRWC remains focused on providing reliable data on important long-term stream sites and finding new ways to use the data to protect the Huron River watershed. Program managers hope to expand to Oakland County in 2022 and establish a stable sensor network at over 20 locations in the Huron and Downriver watersheds. HRWC staff also are leading the effort to develop standard methods for a new Lake Erie Volunteer Monitoring Network and contribute to a greater understanding of water quality in the Lake Erie basin. The future is bright for this program as it continues to grow.

—Ric Lawson and Andrea Paine

This blog post was originally published in the Huron River Report, Summer 2022.