Using Biology to Measure Environmental Quality in the Tippecanoe River Watershed

Monday, February 23, 2015 - 3:58pm
Everyone likes clean water. We want our water to be clean so we can swim in it, drink it,
and fish in it without worrying about getting sick. We want our lakes to be clear and
healthy. But how do we know if the water is clean? We can test the chemicals in it.
That’s valuable for the few chemicals we can accurately measure. But an even better
way to measure water health is to observe what lives in it. Animals that live in the water
are surrounded by it every minute of every day. Some kinds of animals can only survive
if the water and its habitat are in good condition. Biological monitoring is very useful for
keeping track of water health.
The Tippecanoe Watershed Foundation has been measuring the biological health of rivers
and lakes in the watershed upstream from Tippecanoe Lake since 2005. Biologists use an
electric current to stun fish. The numbers and kinds of fish present tell us a lot about how
healthy the water is.
What kinds of fish live in the watershed? Many different kinds. About 50 different 
species are present.
They range in size from edible                                  To 1-inch banded sculpins
largemouth bass like this one:                                   like this one:
They include sunfish, minnows, suckers, catfish, perch, and many other lesser known
Fish have to eat too. And the food group
that most of them eat are smaller animals
without backbones that cling to rocks and
sticks under water. We call them
“macroinvertebrates.” They include
insects, snails, worms, and crustaceans. A
healthy stream or lake has lots of these in a
wide variety, as seen in this picture:
Kids who live in the Tippecanoe watershed have enjoyed the experience of seeing these living things first-hand. Once you’ve held a fish, you begin to treasure them and work to protect them.
Have we seen any improvement over the years? Yes. Ten sites in the watershed have
been monitored since 2005. The graph below shows a summary of changes in the “biotic
index scores” of fish and macroinvertebrate communities over this time period. Almost
all the sites have improved as the Tippecanoe Watershed Foundation carries out its
improvement plan.
How has the Tippecanoe Watershed Foundation helped improve the health of the
watershed? We have collaborated with local landowners to restore stream banks and
wetlands, install filter strips, fence out livestock, improve storm drains, create rain
gardens, and educate all of us who live here how to take care of our land in a way that
helps water quality.
Another way we might work together to continue to improve water health in our
watershed is to improve “habitat.” Animals need more than clean water to survive. They
also need a good place to live, with shelter, shade, and places to escape predators.
Many of the smaller streams in our                          A more natural small stream in our
watershed look like this:                                           watershed looks like this:
Working together to restore the natural shade, vegetation, and channels in our small streams will help continue the improvements we’ve seen over the past 10 years.