FOLEY – Citizen volunteers collecting thousands of samples along Foley area streams have provided water quality data for South Baldwin County and Alabama for 25 years.
Since 1998, members of the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch have collected data from more than 80 sites around Wolf Bay and other waterways, Jackie McGonigal, one of the program coordinators, said.
At a recent Watershed Watch meeting, McGonigal, who is also Orange Beach Wind and Water Learning Center coordinator, said the data gathered by volunteer monitors allows scientists to keep track of changes as the region develops.
“Our watershed actually has a really, really great set of baseline data because we have been in existence for almost 25 years,” McGonigal said. “This is really important because that set of data helps inform a lot of management decisions. It also has allowed us to pursue water body classifications and this data has been used not only by engineering firms to help form watershed management plans, but it’s also been used for management decisions at city levels, county and even state levels.”
Since 1998, about 125 Wolf Bay Watershed Watch volunteers have collected data at more than 80 sites. In the last two years, 27 monitors were active in 24 sites. The group has collected 9,555 total records, the second-highest total for a region throughout Alabama.
McGonigal said the program allows residents to take part in keeping track of water quality in their community. Volunteers use kits to measure a variety of factors in local streams.
“We measure temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, turbidity and then some people are monitoring for nutrients, phosphate and nitrate specifically, McGonigal said. “Why is this important? The big question that we want to know about our water bodies that we’re on. Are they improving? Are they kind of holding steady or are they getting worse?”
Two factors used to check changes in water quality are dissolved oxygen and levels of bacteria, usually Escherichia coli, known as E coli.
The minimal level for dissolved oxygen set by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management for fresh water is 5 parts per million. McGonigal said tests in local waters have found that oxygen levels have dropped in some streams at times, but most areas are within the state standard.
She said some natural occurrences can reduce oxygen levels, such as organic matter decomposing, in the water.
Most E coli levels have also been within ADEM standards. She said some tests have found levels that have exceeded state standards. The E coli bacteria are found in the intestines of warm blooded animals, including humans.
“It naturally comes from wildlife,” she said, “It comes unnaturally from sewage systems. So if there’s a faulty septic tank or if we have sewer overflows, which sometimes we see during these major rainfall events, that can be a route for E coli to get into the water body.”
She said E coli levels are measured in colony forming units, or CPUs, per 100 milliliters of water.
Levels below 200 are considered safe. At levels between 200 and 500, people are advised to be cautious about swimming or eating seafood from a site. At levels of 600 or more, the Alabama Department of Public Health might shut down a location to swimming until the counts are reduced.
The Wolf Bay monitoring system is part of a state network established by the Alabama Water Watch.
“Their goal is to have a citizen monitor on every single water body in Alabama,” McGonigal said. “That’s a really tall order. Has anyone ever looked at a topographic map of the entire state? We’re covered in water. We’re one of the largest watershed systems in the country.”
She said the Wolf Bay Watershed Watch is also working to add more volunteers to monitor more sites in the South Baldwin area.
Anyone wanting more information can go to the organization’s website at https://wolfbaywatershedwatch.org/