- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2007

BIG BAY, Mich. (AP) — Chauncey Moran leaves his backwoods cabin day after day, packs his pickup with gear and embarks on a scientific mission checking the health of the Yellow Dog River.

Friends call the 62-year-old retiree “River Walker” for his devotion to the trout stream, which meanders through forests and sandy plains in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and eventually feeds into Lake Superior.

Mr. Moran is part of a nationwide corps of volunteers who monitor lakes, rivers and wetlands for pollution and its effects. Their role is becoming more crucial as government water-protection agencies struggle with staff and budget shortfalls.

“Citizen monitors are the first and sometimes the only line of defense for our waterways. There’s often nobody else there looking,” said Scott Dye, director of the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels Program, which provides equipment and training for volunteers in 18 states.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has partnerships with numerous organizations that keep tabs on local waters, spokesman Robert McCann said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists about 900 water-monitoring groups across the country with 190,000 trained members — and officials say the number is growing.

Mr. Moran regularly visits about 20 spots along the 51-mile-long Yellow Dog in northern Marquette County, wading into swift currents to gather data and filling out charts that he forwards to the state DEQ.

He measures water temperature, clarity, acidity levels and other characteristics. He notes fish species. He pokes through sediments, scooping up aquatic bugs, mussels and worms, the variety and abundance of which offer clues about water quality. He snaps thousands of photos a year.

The off-the-beaten-path Yellow Dog is better off than many rivers, but Mr. Moran has spotted problems from sediment buildup, which damages fish habitat. Near the mouth, stream flow has been diverted and a section filled with eroded sand, triggered by a decade-old landslide that people may have caused.

His primary goal is to develop benchmarks that could signal dangerous trends in the future.

Government officials say data produced by volunteers is helpful — to a point. Sometimes it falls short of scientific standards needed to prove a violation of environmental rules, said Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the Michigan DEQ. But it can tip off regulators that trouble may be brewing.

That’s important in states such as Michigan, which has dozens of watersheds. The DEQ said it has enough staff to evaluate each of them just once every five years.

“I’d love to have a volunteer organization in every watershed that’s been trained, so we’re pretty confident about the quality of the information,” said Gary Kohlhepp, a DEQ aquatic biologist. “But I don’t think it’s a substitute for a professional.”

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