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Benthic Macroinvertebrate Monitoring


Program Update

Message from Pete Cooper, Chair



Monitoring the health of the Middle River is a core function of FOMR and is now even more important and necessary with accelerating climate warming and instability, contributing to increasing environmental malfunction. Nutrient, E. coli, and Benthic Monitoring Programs are key components of FOMR’s monitoring efforts.

FOMR’s Benthic Monitoring Program collects aquatic bugs (macroinvertebrates—“macros” for short) from the Middle River and assesses river health by comparing macros tolerant of pollution with those less tolerant.

We have been collecting and identifying aquatic macros down to the family level for over 10 years, one of only two citizen science organizations (to the best of my knowledge) in Virginia to do so (the other is Rivanna Conservation Alliance - RCA). Everyone else identifies macros to the order level, which yields less scientifically robust and accurate data.

In order to better utilize our family-level data, we are attempting to become a DEQ (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality) Level Three citizen science program. This would mean that DEQ could use our data in many of the ways that they use their own data. Our data would have greater scientific legitimacy. Level Three recognition is really a no-brainer given that we are already collecting family-level data which is, by far and away, the most difficult part of becoming a Level Three program.

There are some other Level Three requirements, primarily involving quality assurance, which will make our data and results more scientifically defensible. We are beginning the process of converting our data to the same data metrics that DEQ and RCA use.

We have closely modeled our program on RCA’s program. The staff at RCA have been very supportive and generous in helping us become Level Three. Ted Turner, a DEQ biologist, has also been extremely supportive and generous with his time and expertise. He serves as our lab and is an indispensable consultant. Phil Davis is our expert and talented certified benthic trainer. Kelli Burnett has been helping me manage the benthic program over the past year. She has a master’s degree in biology with considerable expertise in benthic monitoring (as part of her thesis, Kelli identified more than 18,000 aquatic macros to assess impacts on stream quality). Kate Guenther is our data guru. We couldn’t function without Kate. Most importantly, we have the most experienced and expert monitors in Virginia (seriously, not exaggerating) who make it all happen.

Fast FAQs

Started in: 2010

Protocol measures: Number and species of aquatic insect larva that live in the water

Number of volunteers that run the program: 70

Number of sites monitored: 9

Where the data is sent:  Virginia Save Our Streams, a part of the Izaac Walton League of America

As stewards of the Middle River and its tributaries we need ways to measure the quality and health of these water bodies. Quantitatively, we can measure bacteria like E. coli, nutrient and chemical pollutants, and physical attributes like temperature, sediment, and oxygenation. All of these measures provide a valuable snapshot of water quality at the time of the assessment.


To gauge the ongoing water quality of the river throughout the year, however, we turn to benthic monitoring which focuses on organisms that are present in the river every day. Benthic invertebrates (i.e. bottom-dwelling spineless critters) are responsive to environmental change and are excellent indicators of system stresses. Benthic assessment protocols are the method of choice for gauging the biotic integrity of streams. 


Many of these stream-dwelling critters are extremely sensitive to any type of pollution so that by knowing the types and numbers of these populations we are able to determine stream water quality.  The bottom-dwelling macroinvertebrates make up the base of the food chain for all stream inhabitants and are essential to stream habitat. Monitoring is carried out twice a year by trained monitors in teams of two to three citizen scientists who capture, count and identify all the critters in a given space.  The counts of specific types of organisms, both tolerant and intolerant of stream pollution, are plugged into an algorithm that gives a score between 0 to 12 (with 12 being the "best" score.) To date, we have a 10-year database of stream health of around nine different sites that have been monitored by over 70 volunteers.

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