Once a month, Cyndy Dillon places a ping-pong size ball in the Mark Dickson Creek and then has to chase after it to collect it 20 feet downstream. She’s had to belly flop to catch it occasionally, she said.
It’s all part of her work for the Pierce Conservation District’s “Stream Team.” The ball measures the velocity of the stream and can help identify potential issues in the county’s waterways. She tosses it in the fastest part of the stream and hustles down to catch it.
Dillon has been a volunteer water tester since 2009. The work is part of retirement for her. She spent 30 years in the U.S. Navy as an oceanographer and meteorologist.
Dwight Mason has some help while he uses the ball to test the stream. His grandson, Jack Coberly, 13, helps him monitor Purdy Creek near the Park and Ride on 144th Street. The two set up shop under a canopy of trees next to the bus stop. Mason has been a volunteer for three years; Jack has been helping for the past year.
What the volunteers are looking for is “red flag” data, said Isabel Ragland, manager of the program. The data shows things that might need addressing, such as nitrates in the water from upstream, harmful fertilizers.
“It definitely can highlight an area of concern,” Ragland said.
Monitors also log pH levels, measure creeks’ width and depth and test for oxygen and nitrate levels. All data is sent to the conservation district.
Mason, Jack and Dillon are volunteers in the Key Peninsula, Gig Harbor and Islands Watershed area. In that area, which covers the two peninsulas as well as Anderson Island, stream team monitors 24 streams. The Mark Dickson stream, monitored by Dillon, has three points along Whitmore Drive.
The time commitment is minimal, Mason said. Volunteers monitor once a month and it only takes about an hour for all the tests. It’s a small amount of time to help out with a bigger goal.
“You feel like you’re doing something to make a difference,” he said.
The science aspect is also accessible for monitors, who undergo a half-day of training and are provided with all equipment. Mason picks up his tub of test tubes and thermometers at the Gig Harbor Library once a month.
Dillon said the district is a rewarding volunteer project to be involved with because the program offers so much support to volunteers.
“I think the (staff) are just outstanding. Very supportive; recognizing our efforts,” he said.
Stream monitors practice stream stewardship and raise awareness of potential issues. The data can help protect local streams, which often means protecting migrating salmon.
One thing both Dillon and Mason have noticed is a low water level due to the hot weather this summer. For the most part, however, their streams have been consistently healthy.
They’ll be out there, keeping an eye on things.
The Pierce Conservation District will host a training session for new volunteers from 9 a.m. to noon Sept. 26. Those interested should contact Ragland at IsabelR@piercecountycd.org or at 253-845-9770x103.