California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

The Biomonitoring Of Alvarado Creek

Published: June 6, 2016

A creek that runs through San Diego State University (SDSU) yields scientific and professional benefits for CSULB students, thanks to the recent conclusion of a $10,912 contract with biological sciences’ faculty member Dessie Underwood in collaboration with SDSU colleagues Thomas Zink and Natalie Mladenov.

The grant supports the biomonitoring of Alvarado Creek by CSULB’s Stream Ecology and Assessment Laboratory (SEAL) which was established by Underwood in 2005.

“I’m working with professors Zink and Mladenov who are undertaking a restoration project,” explained Underwood, a member of the university since 1999. “The creek has a lot of invasive plants that cause flooding. The project has three phases with the goal of removing all the invasive plants to improve flow. The engineers want to examine how that would affect the creatures that live there.”

SEAL has been under contract with the California state water boards to assess the health of the freshwater streams and rivers within the Santa Ana and San Jacinto watersheds (Region 8) since 2005. This long-term project, funded by the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program, assesses the biological health of some of the state’s freshwater resources and helps to train the next generation of freshwater biologists. To date, this project has brought nearly $3 million to CSULB.

“Most of that money goes toward student training,” said Underwood. “The funding for the Alvarado Biomonitoring project came to San Diego State who got it through Prop. 1, a water-related bond passed in 2014. Part of that money goes toward watershed restoration projects.”

SEAL offers a wealth of resources such as banks of microscopes including the compound kind to examine diatoms at 1,000X magnification.

“Other microscopes look at the macroinvertebrates. There is a whole suite of different identification keys, books and references that can be used to identify them,” she explained. “Data analysis needs computers and all our data is, in turn, uploaded to a state database. Not only do we collect the bugs and diatoms, we collect water samples which we bring back to the Institute for Integrated Research in Materials, Environment and Society (IIRMES) lab at CSULB where we can analyze for nutrients such as phosphates and nitrogen, metals and a variety of other chemicals.”

In 2008, SEAL joined the Stream Monitoring Coalition of Southern California and is participating in an ambitious multi-year regional monitoring project comprising efforts from six counties and two regions of the state water boards. Freshwater streams from Ventura County south to San Diego County are being sampled using bioassessment, the California Rapid Assessment Method (CRAM), and algal assessment. Water samples are analyzed for nutrients, pesticides, heavy metals and toxicology.

An impairment to the natural condition can be detected in signals.

“For example, impairment is correlated with a decline in the number of species and the types of organisms that shift from being mostly insects to those that are not insects,” she explained. Quantifying the local regional status of freshwater streams is the first step in identifying the specific stressors that are causing poor stream health.

“Studying freshwater systems is what SEAL does,” explained Underwood. “We sample the creatures who live in streams and rivers. We compare what we find with certain benchmarks. If a freshwater system is in really good shape, it ought to have certain organisms. At each stream site, the physical habitat and water chemistry are characterized and a random sample of benthic macroinvertebrates (BMIs) and diatoms are collected for laboratory processing. Diatoms are single-celled algae that are found in both marine and freshwater. The species composition of the BMI and diatom communities are useful in gauging the past and current conditions of both the water and the physical habitat of a stream because many species are very sensitive to the common stressors that typify poor quality streams.”

SEAL also provides hands-on training in the science of bioassessment for both undergraduate and graduate students at CSULB.

“Typically SEAL employs approximately 10-15 undergraduate and graduate students during any semester,” she said. “Students are trained to gain an understanding of the terminology and industry standards used by bioassessment professionals, to learn laboratory and field skills relevant to freshwater bioassessment, and to design and conduct experiments in stream ecology.”

Bioassessment field crews must gather data in the same way across the state so the data can be combined into statewide dataset for analysis. SEAL students learn the importance of data sheets and quality control.

“Every year, we offer a ‘shakedown’ or spring training where our experienced students lead new students into the field to learn the field SOPs (standard operating procedures),” she said.

Participating in this project helps to train CSULB students for a variety of careers including placement in environmental consulting firms and various state and federal agencies. SEAL offers the only academic setting in Southern California that provides this type of training for students, according to Underwood, who believes one reason her research has found consistent support is good business.

“There are lots of companies that perform similar work at much higher prices,” she said. “The Department of Fish and Wildlife have bioassessment teams, but they are expensive. Also there is not a lot of customer service. They do not even write reports. They only upload the data to the database as that is all that they are required to do. I like our partnership within the Santa Ana and San Jacinto watersheds in Region 8. It provides training for students and they get personalized service.”