The tennis ball didn’t float downstream as effortlessly as Barb Smith and Don Baker had hoped.

“The flow rate gave us a lot of trouble,” Smith later ruefully reflected. Next month, she said, “we’re going to go farther downstream,” to avoid whatever kept catching it up.

It was a lesson learned on this humid June morning. But, clad in hip waders in a shallow stream flowing out of Cambridge’s Lake Ripley, Smith and Baker said their other observations went well.

The Lake Mills couple was supervised on this, their first day as volunteer stream monitors for the Rock River Coalition, by Patricia Cicero, the Jefferson County Land and Water Conservation Department’s interim director and water resources and management specialist. With her help, they worked for a couple of hours. They hung a thermometer into the water for two minutes to get a temperature read. Painstakingly dripped chemicals into a vile to measure dissolved oxygen. Tape-measured the waterway’s width and depth and assessed its clarity.

Finally, they dumped nets full of mud and – they hoped — some tiny critters into a pan on shore, then picked through it all looking for macroinvertebrates. Propped up on the grassy bank was a paper printout with photos of the small creatures they might come across.

“I didn’t mind touching the creepy crawlies,” Barb laughed later. “I think it’s all pretty fun actually.”

Throughout the morning, they used a pencil to write their collected data on a paper data sheet. It was attached to a clipboard they carried with them into the stream. Water quality data collected by the volunteers is later entered to a web-based database. Anyone with access to the web can view data or reports that are generated. Over time it can offer an important snapshot of the waterway’s health.

Since 2002, the Rock River Coalition has trained over 200 volunteers to “test the waters” using easy-to-learn methods developed by the state-wide Water Action Volunteers (WAV) program. WAV, a statewide collaboration between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin-Cooperative Extension, was created in 1997.

Also on hand at the stream this day was Beth Gehred, lake district manager for the Lake Ripley Management District. She said she the lake district already monitors water flowing into Lake Ripley, at several sites. Baker and Smith, she said, will be collecting data where water flows out of the lake into the stream, headed toward Koshkonong Creek. Gehred said the data being collected is key as the lake district prepares to update its 10-year management plan. She said the lake district “feels fortunate to have trained volunteers in the area who are willing to share what they learn.”

It was Smith and Baker’s second session in as many weeks with Cicero.

On June 1, they’d attended a stream monitoring classroom session led by Cicero and Becca Dymzarov, the Rock River Coalition’s volunteer stream monitoring program coordinator, using curriculum materials developed by WAV.

The half-day class, held at the Amundson Community Center in Cambridge, drew about a dozen potential volunteers. It was co-sponsored by the Jefferson County Land and Water Conservation Department.

Currently, the Rock River Coalition has about 80 volunteer stream monitors collecting water quality data throughout the Rock River Basin. There are about two dozen volunteers working in Jefferson County, at 18 sites, Dymzarov said. Some of the sites are at different points on the same stream.

“This is actually harder that it looks,” Dymzarov laughed at the June 1 session as she prepared to shake a vile for two minutes, demonstrating how to test water for dissolved oxygen.

Dymzarov and Cicero urged volunteers to call them if repeated test results raised concern.

A low oxygen level, for instance, they said, could indicate a stream pollution issue. They said they have more sophisticated equipment than volunteers, and can come out themselves to test a stream when alarms have been raised.

Volunteers usually work in pairs.

Once they’re trained, they’re placed on a specific stream, where they return once a month, spring through October. Each time they return, they take the same measurements.

Some volunteers have a science background.

Smith and Baker, for instance, are retired veterinarians and say their understanding of chemistry helps them grasp what they’re looking for. But, they said, and Cicero and Dymzarov concurred at the classroom session, that most anyone could follow the provided directions and collect the data successfully.

At the classroom session in Cambridge, prospective new volunteers worked through a thick folder that included illustrated instructions on each part of the observation process.

They also got a stack of blank data sheets and a box with tools that included a net, viles, safety goggles, a stop watch, thermometer, a dissolved oxygen chemistry kit, and a biotic index kit.Volunteers give the equipment back if they quit the program.

And they learned about training videos they can watch on YouTube, that can help them remember each month what they are setting out to do.

“It’s pretty step-by-step,” Smith said.

Smith and Baker, who also have volunteered for a variety of other outdoor and environmental groups, said the flexible schedule – they can choose when to go to their stream each month as long as it’s roughly the same week of every month – drew them.

“We love being outside, we’ve got time, we get to play in the mud. What could be better?” Smith said.

Baker and Smith said their only personal financial investment was the purchase of hip waders.

The advanced preparation on the part of the course organizers, Baker said, helped set them at ease.

“They put a lot of time into education for the volunteers,” he said. “If that’s set up well, it lends validity to the data.”

Once volunteers have given a year to the program, they can step up to a more advanced level where they are allowed to do things like habitat assessments in and around their stream.

Baker and Smith said they look forward to reaching that point.

“It’s about the environment,” Smith said. “If you care about the environment, if you have any interest in it at all, and you have the time, it’s a pretty easy thing to get involved in.”

“It does make a difference,” Baker said. “What makes Wisconsin Wisconsin? The wetlands. If you don’t have healthy wetlands you’ve lost what Wisconsin is, really.”

“It’s for a good cause,” Smith said. “Next year, maybe we’ll have two streams.”

“Don’t want to overload my retirement schedule,” though, she added with a laugh.

More information:, or (920) 674-7121.

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