Stream Studies
Eugene P. Macri Jr.

Stream Studies at

As a young scientist many years ago I had great enthusiasm for studying streams.  Over the years that enthusiasm turned into cynicism.  This started during the Reagan era when the EPA and other Federal Agencies dealing with the environment were loaded up with political moles and hacks that were the antithesis of science.  As one consulting firm put it, "It's now client centered science."  There is no such thing as client centered science! The modeling game of economists, political scientists (whatever they may be) and other assorted pseudoscientists as well as engineers have invaded these fields. Many of the engineers should have stuck to building bridges and buildings because they have little understanding of biogeochemical systems. Engineering firms have now jumped full force into such endeavors without regard to really understanding stream ecology in my estimation and the studies show their lack of expertise.  But they often get exactly "the data" that the EPA and state agencies want and that's why they get contract work.

Stream Methods EPA and State Agencies

Plecotera Stonefly Water Quality from stream studies at

Perhaps the best indicators of the health of stream are macroinvertebrate studies. However, every fisherman (especially fly anglers), fishing group, and citizen's group think they are aquatic scientists and can do these properly. Some groups have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Because you can identify a mayfly or caddisfly doesn't make you an aquatic scientist. Even the protocols used by EPA are outdated and do not take into account the difference in stream types. The metrics used also don't take into account changes in emergence patterns due to global warming and time of year the study was done. Furthermore, both qualitative and quantitative studies should be done to get a baseline and proper benchmark. I once stood at a spring creek and listened to a girl from the EPA. She had a PhD. She said, "These spring creeks don't seem very diverse or productive?" I just walked away. It was no use telling her anything. She managed to get a PhD in the field and didn't understand the ecology of a spring creek. Spring creeks have a limited temperature range and therefore this limits the diversity. Spring creeks also have limited substrates and current speeds which also limits diversity. And finally although most are not diverse they tend have massively large populations per member of the macroinvertebrate community. They are considered some of the most productive ecosystems in the world.

The water protocols (RBPs=Rapid Benthic Protocols) of the EPA and state agencies are a start but don't put too much faith in them being precise. Many states and agencies have tried to modify and add their own metrics in an attempt to get a better picture of what's going on in a stream. However, remember if the basic premise or input was not correct in a system analysis then all the manipulation statistically or otherwise will not correct the problem.  To put it in layman's terms as one professor put it, "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit!"  If a stream or body of water is wiped out by pollution or severely damaged they are at least semi-effective.  However, they are intentionally general and they lack proper delineation that can be used in stream types. The reason that they are "very general" is because of two reasons.  First, it's more advantageous for federal and state agencies to have "noise" in their data so that no one can really be held responsible.  Second, the EPA and state agencies lack the expertise, understanding,  good scientific techniques and always appear to be under time constraints to do these properly.  For instance, they use the outdated model of the geomorphic definition of streams. How can you compare the headwaters of a spring creek to a freestone stream? Biogeochemically they are extremely different yet they are treated the same by such protocols. The theory that technician level people can do the survey and then you can sort through their mistakes in the laboratory by using some enhanced metric or engineering standard hasn't worked. This has always been one of the fatal flaws of the RBPs.

In every instance a stream should baselined and benchmarked before any real analysis or decisions on it should be made. Unfortunately, that usually doesn't happen.

Chemical Data in Stream Studies: A Warning!

Sawtooth River from Chemcial Data in Stream Studies at

Chemical data are spurious at best.  Chemical data are like a very fuzzy photographs.  Chemical data should never stand alone in my estimation. Furthermore, chemical data are easily rigged, done improperly and misinterpreted.  Chemical data rely on the skill and scientific knowledge of the person taking the test. The quality and accuracy of the data and the test itself also rely on the quality of the equipment and the methods and protocols used.  I hate to burst anyone's bubble but those citizen's groups running along streams with $20.00 kits have little chance of their data standing up under any scientific or legal review.

I learned early the tricks of water chemistry testing used by federal, state, and private scientists.  These include when to the take the test, not feeding fish in a hatchery for an extended period of time to lower the concentrations of perturbations emptying into the stream, and even advanced warning of when the operation will be tested.  These are just a few of many tricks used to get around the chemical tests. While doing  the landmark study on Big Spring Creek in Newville Pennsylvania I found in my examination of Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Department of Environmental Protection records that the chemical tests were done improperly or that they were rigged. On Big Spring Creek the state hatchery pollution equipment never worked properly from day 1. The federal EPA just accepted their data!  On one stream in Pennsylvania I examined a mining companies records and was puzzled by their pH data.  When questioned,  the mining company admitted that they were testing pH in the lab and not the field. After taking it properly at the stream the mining company admitted that their data were way off from the stream's real pH values.  Furthermore, I've watched these jokers riding around in their trucks with water samples.  The samples are supposed to be put on ice and not shaken etc.  So much for that! They claimed their samples were done by a certified lab!

I would have made a good living by writing a book or giving seminars on how to beat the testing of federal and state agencies but I decided otherwise.  The EPA is suppose to certify and test state water quality agency labs of each state's DEP.  I know of one state that missed 6 spiked (called hot samples) in row, and another that missed 4 in a row yet their certification status remained in tact.  This has to give you a good feeling about the level of protection and health of your state!  In Pennsylvania the DEP has decided to let the Fracking Industry do it's own testing and they accept it "carte blanc."  Need I say more!

Whenever you view chemical data you should remember the following things:

  1. What were the qualifications of the people who did the testing?
  2. Who paid for the testing?
  3. Were the chemical tests done to standard protocols?  For instance the EPA protocols are usually good if done properly with proper equipment with trained chemists or biologists.
  4. Always remember chemical tests are like a "spot in time" in terms of when they were done.
  5. Water tests vary during the day and night due to biogeochemical cycles of the stream. Are the test data suspicious for the time taken?
  6. Be wary of the "average trick."  If I have an average of 8 ppm of oxygen in the stream you would think the trout would be fine. But a further examination would reveal the streams oxygen level falls below 5 ppm for 30 minutes and guess what--- the fish die.  Organisms don't live in averages. They live in parameters within the range of their extremes.
  7. If this is a stream study,  the chemical data should be reflected in the macroinvertebrate community, the microfloral periodicity, and the macrophytes. If it's not you have a problem!

I hope you have enjoyed this foray into stream studies.  I hope it serves as primer and gives you things to think about. I'm not saying all stream studies are done improperly but in my experience over the last thirty-five plus years they are getting progressively worst and have been unduly influenced by grants, contracts, and client centered science!




Information Inquiries and Newsletter
If you are interested in my services, have questions or wish to receive our scientific newsletter please use this contact form.