Feature Article: Scenery and Science: The Perks and Importance of Stream Monitoring

By Garrett Hopkins, Rock River Coalition

Damselflies, dragonflies, muskrats, otters and walleye: these are some of the animals Don and Janet Ash have had the pleasure of seeing up close over the course of their four-year stream monitoring journey. Don and Janet, a married couple that lives on Fox Lake in Dodge County, began stream monitoring as a way to participate in local conservation efforts. Unique animal encounters, they very quicky learned, were one of many unexpected perks.

“We also see a lot of tadpoles and frogs,” says Janet. Watching tadpoles sprout legs, lose their tails and transition into frogs over the course of a summer is a remarkable experience. Seeing the number of tadpoles and frogs increase over the years is even better. “We didn’t see any our first year, but they’re starting to come back. That’s been really nice to see.”

In 2021, Janet and Don had been looking for a way to give back to nature. “We saw first-hand the effect of [pollution] coming into the lake,” says Janet. “We had a lot of algae in front of our property, and we thought, ‘How can we get involved to help get this cleaned up?’” During their first year as volunteers, they monitored one stream near Fox Lake, and by their second year, they were pulling double duty.

Since 2022, Janet and Don have monitored two different streams near their home that run into Fox Lake: Drew Creek and Cambra Creek. “We do both on the same day,” says Janet. “We turn it into a special day. We always do our sampling in the morning, then go out to lunch together.” After four years of monitoring, they have the process down to a science.

“It only takes about a half hour [per stream] for us at this point, maybe a little longer,” says Don. They work in tandem, when possible. “I get water samples for Janet, for example, then go back and do the temperature.” Stream monitoring is a small commitment that goes a long way. Streams are only monitored once per month, but the data gained during each session supports broad conservation efforts that span decades.

Fox Lake, like so many other lakes in Wisconsin, suffers from high phosphorus levels and blue-green algae. The DNR just released the Fox Lake Nine Key Elements Plan, a program outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help preserve impaired watersheds and spearheaded by the Fox Lake Inland Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District. Fox Lake’s plan aims to reduce phosphorus by 17% by 2032 and is part of an overarching strategy to improve water quality in the Rock River.

Stream monitoring volunteers collect a number of different types of data, such as water temperature, stream flow, water clarity, macroinvertebrate life and, Don and Janet’s favorite, dissolved oxygen. Testing for oxygen involves a bit of chemistry: turning the water blue with one chemical, then counting how many droplets of a second chemical it takes to turn the water back to clear. 

From oxygen levels to otters, from stream flow to frogs, stream monitoring has become a rewarding part of Janet and Don’s life. “It’s an adventure,” says Don, “You come across different things every time you go. It’s a great way to get back into nature.”

Last year, in a generous effort to collect much-needed data for Fox Lake’s Nine Key Elements Plan, Janet and Don collected data from ten locations on three different streams on a monthly basis. “It’s well worth it,” says Janet. “We go to the Lake District meetings for Fox Lake and hear them talking about things that we’re participating in. It’s nice to know we’re a part of it.” 

On behalf of all who cherish Wisconsin’s valuable water resources, Rock River Coalition thanks Don and Janet for all of the time they’ve dedicated to our mission. Our organization currently supports more than 200 volunteer stream monitors per year, and we are always looking for more. If you or someone you know could be interested in volunteering, reach out to Lizzy Reitzloff at lizzy@rockrivercoalition.org.