So, You Want to be a Stream Monitor. I Do, Too!

Three retired friends who share a love of local water conservation bond over volunteer stream monitoring

  • Text and Photos by Bill MacFarland
  • Neighborhood Science
  • Jul 04, 2023

Tammy Taylor, Lorie Leavy and Jan Goldman-Carter (from left) examine a rock with insect eggs in the middle of Maryland’s Muddy Branch.

ON A BRIGHT SPRING MORNING along Maryland’s Muddy Branch—a tributary of the Potomac River—three women clamber down the slippery banks in boots and waders, each carrying nets, microscopes and clipboards. Meet Tammy Taylor, Lorie Leavy and Jan Goldman-Carter—stream monitors for Nature Forward (formerly the Audubon Naturalist Society) and part of a dedicated cadre of volunteers working with various groups to preserve the nation’s waterways.

The three have been members of the same book club for more than a decade. But a few years ago, “Lorie mentioned that she was doing water quality monitoring,” says Goldman-Carter. “Tammy and I piped up to say we would love to do that!” So they completed a series of required training courses with Nature Forward and joined Leavy in the quest to help create a healthier stream.

“Volunteer stream monitors are very much valued,” says Sara Weglein, former head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Stream Waders volunteer program. “Good data comes from committed volunteers, and we would not have nearly the coverage in the state without them.”

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An image showing the closeup of a damselfly.

Volunteer stream monitors collect specimens such as this damselfly nymph, placed in an empty ice cube tray.

Filling a critical need

Reliable data on water quality are more important now than ever. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2022 notes that monitored freshwater populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians have declined globally by 83 percent since 1970. And according to a 2017 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, only 28 percent of monitored rivers and streams in the United States are in healthy biological condition. With state government scientists able to monitor less than one-third of the 3.5 million miles of U.S. rivers and streams due to limited resources, volunteer monitors play a critical role in filling that gap.

Taylor, Leavy and Goldman-Carter are happy to help the cause by monitoring Muddy Branch. Originating in Gaithersburg, Maryland, 12.5 miles north of Washington, D.C., the stream flows through 13 miles of suburban landscape and protected parkland into the Potomac River. Regional development expanded rapidly after 1970, resulting in the loss of tree canopy and significant increases in paved areas impervious to rainfall, both of which can lead to stream warming and higher levels of polluted runoff.

To assess stream health, the three friends measure water temperature, pH, turbidity and stream conditions such as visible flow rate and riffles. They note the presence of tree roots, leaf packs and woody debris, which provide habitat for aquatic animals. And they collect samples of aquatic insects, worms and other invertebrates—often a source of delight and surprise.

“When you catch something good or identify something challenging, it can be very personally gratifying,” says Leavy, a stream monitor for 12 years. On an outing two years ago, for example, the trio collected three stonefly nymphs. Because this insect is intolerant of pollution, its presence can signal that water quality is improving. More recently, working with their Nature Forward team leader Tim Goodfellow, they discovered a horsehair worm, the first such worm recorded in any of Nature Forward’s monitored streams. Unfortunately, these worms are pollution tolerant, not an encouraging sign—but that hasn’t dimmed the three friends’ enthusiasm.

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An image of Lorie, Jan, and Tammy together, smiling, identifying a caddis fly.

Taylor, Leavy and Goldman-Carter say serving as stream monitors together has fed their senses of curiosity and joy.

Science with a smile

Beyond their love of books and the outdoors, these women have all completed successful careers. “Stream monitoring is a good match for retirees, particularly in our area, where there are lots of scientists and science-related professionals,” says Gregg Trilling, conservation outreach manager for Nature Forward in Maryland. “People who are passionate and love being outdoors with others make great stream monitors.”

Goldman-Carter, formerly legal counsel and director of water resources for the National Wildlife Federation, wholeheartedly concurs. “This could be a good fit for people who love nature and learning new things,” she says.

The work can also help build a network of like-minded friends. “People share their interesting catches and invite others to have a look, either in the collection pan or through the microscope,” says Leavy. “Sometimes we all pitch in to help identify an organism.” Though getting muddy and hunting bugs won’t be for everyone, it has clearly created a lasting bond among these committed women.

Maryland-based conservation photographer Bill MacFarland documents the Potomac and Anacostia watersheds.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Our Work: Waters »
Anacostia Unbound »
Blog: Healthy Creeks and Streams Help Urban Wildlife »

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