The Health of the Creek: Part One

Everyday Naturalist
Living with Nature on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Our property has the good fortune of backing onto Watts Creek, a brackish estuary that feeds into the Choptank River and, eventually, on out to the Chesapeake Bay. Midwinter this year, I received a letter from the Maryland Department of the Environment requesting permission to access the creek from our property for the purposes of stream health testing.
Watts Creek Stream Study area

In part one of this post, I will share with you the first part of the stream testing, focusing on aquatic insects (“juvenile aquatic invertebrates”). Part two will report on the follow-up testing, done in midsummer, that focuses on fish in the creek. The results of these surveys, along with water quality and stream habitat measurements, are used to measure the overall quality and health of the stream. Our site was last sampled in 2000, when the results indicated “excellent stream health” at this location. I’m very curious to see how the current conditions compare.

logoThe goal of the Maryland Biological Stream Survey (MBSS) is to gather information for ensuring the protection and restoration of Maryland’s stream resources. The MBSS was created in 1993 by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a way to characterize the health of Maryland’s 10,000+ miles of freshwater streams. Sites are selected using a rigorous statistical design that allows the department to estimate stream condition in medium and large watersheds, as well as statewide. Data is collected at each site on the physical, chemical, and biological (fish and insects) characteristics and then combined into an overall assessment. Since 1995, the MBSS has surveyed 3,405 sites across Maryland.

On an overcast but warm day in early March, I watched as a large white van pulled into my driveway, from which emerged two field biologists, Nick Kaltenbach and Chris Luckett, both from the Maryland Department of the Environment. Instead of back seats in the van, there were buckets, nets, hip waders, boots, notebooks, and various other paraphernalia – Nick and Chris quickly got their boots on and we headed down to the creek. Amazingly enough, the access to Watts Creek from my backyard features a very steep pathway down a grade that drops about 30’ in elevation. After understanding that the “Double Hills” that epitomize our road refer to slight bumps of about 5’ elevation, it was quite a surprise to own property with a true hillside!

Watts Creek I measuring

Biologist Chris Luckett, Watts Creek

The first part of the assessment required the biologists to decide where to test and then to mark off a segment of the stream that is 75 meters long. Because the creek has different branches, it’s important to understand the shape of the section they chose. Once they decided, they took to the water with a bright yellow measuring tape, being careful to ease their way around a bend in the stream. They also marked the beginning and end of the test section with colorful flags on trees by the water’s edge.

The biologists spent about an hour setting up and collecting specimens, using various catch buckets and nets.

Watts Creek I nets and biologist

Here’s a stonefly larva (Insecta plecoptera) that Nick showed me. In trying to learn more about stoneflies, I was amused to find that the bulk of information on the Watts Creek I stone flyInternet is concerned with fishing and how to tie a fly lure that mimics these aquatic insects. Stoneflies are said to be a good sign of a healthy stream, so I was pleased to see that Nick had located many of them in a few minutes of turning over rocks. In the spring, the nymphs swim or crawl to the shore of the stream and molt into adults (and fly away!) – another reason why the aquatic insect study is conducted in late winter.

And, of course, no job is completed until the paperwork is done. Chris was the scribe for the day, filling out the standard information on his impromptu hip-wader desk.

Watts Creek I paperwork

I am eager for the biologists to return this summer so I can learn more about the fish that are living in Watt Creek and feeding on the insects that winter over in the water. It will be good to hear the results of their study with regards to the stream health and whether there are steps we can take as homeowners to continue to be good stewards of this watershed.

Beth Lawton
Maryland Master Naturalist

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