For the love of the darter

We hope that you enjoy the following article that one of our faithful AWW water monitors sent to us last week. Marty Schulman, water monitor extraordinaire, has been employing his monitoring talents in the protection of one of the most endangered fish species in Alabama, and for that matter, in the United States! Marty was the recipient of the coveted 2015 Alabama Rivers Alliance James Lowery Service Award (an expansion of the ARA Volunteer of the Year Award) for his service as an Alabama Water Watch monitor on behalf of US Fish and Wildlife Service at three of the five known habitats of the endangered watercress darter that exist worldwide.

The beloved watercress darter is indigenous to Alabama, and is now limited to a few springs and spring runs (four natural areas, and one where the darter was introduced) in the Birmingham area. Though small in size (measuring to about 2.5 inches in maximum length), this darter rivals tropical reef fish in beauty and coloration (see picture below).

male watercress darter fish
Male watercress darter trying to impress his girlfriend. Credit: USFWS (source: http://www.fws.gov/southeast/news/2010/r10-045.html)

After being trained and certified as an AWW monitor, Marty has been faithfully monitoring water quality at darter habitats in the Birmingham area since 2008. He and fellow members of the Watercress Darter Monitoring Program water monitoring group, have conducted 255 water sampling events and submitted their data to AWW’s online database. Some of the data records from Roebuck Springs, one of the remaining habitats of the watercress darter, are shown below.

For the love of the darter
by Marty Schulman
After attending an all-day meeting last April 16th, I realized what personal growth I was enduring from exposure to the broad coalition of folks deeply involved in water quality, whether anthropocentric or otherwise. Let’s face it, do we want black fly larvae and the other organisms only who can tolerate polluted water or the broader spectrum of creatures, like humans, that need clean water? Besides us humans, there’s a broad spectrum of aquatic and terrestrial life that share our clean water needs; so there’s a common requirement for clean water that doesn’t put human interests above the other critters that we live with.

Marty conducting water chemistry analyses with the AWW test kit at the watercress darter habitat at ***
Marty conducting water chemistry analyses with the AWW test kit at the watercress darter habitat at Roebuck Springs (AWW site 10009004) which runs into the city’s golf course where it joins Village Creek on its way to the Locust Fork branch of the Warrior River.

The watercress darter enters into this picture. While found in a few more locations than the other two darters that were also the focus of that April 16th meeting, it’s sparse populations might not even be that widespread, as Bernie Kuhajda, a long-time fisheries biologist, explained, since there are only really three conservation units. This colorful fish has survived in the most stressful urban settings for all these many years. Slow-moving, cool clean spring water is its required habitat, as it shelters under aquatic vegetation (hence the common name). That it has endured in four such naturally plus one intentionally introduced is totally incredible. The other two, the Rush and Vermillion darters (both of which are even more range-restricted) are also noteworthy survivors in heavily impacted urban/industrialized areas.

My personal goal is to be a good steward where/how I can. This does fit very nicely with AWW, as well as the Watercress Darter Monitoring Program (WDMP) which incepted in spring, 2007, headed by Dr. Scot Duncan of Birmingham Southern College. In spring, 2008 I started monitoring with Liz Brooke at one of those sites, Roebuck Springs in the eastern area of Birmingham. The spring is actually on Alabama state property, then the run continues into a city park passing through a culvert under the tennis courts at Hawkin’s Park.

Eight years of continuous monthly monitoring data (99 monthly records; water temperature and dissolved oxygen) from AWW site 10009004, Roebuck Springs in Jefferson County, submitted by Marty and his fellow Birmingham Environmental Clearinghouse monitors. Of note are 1) highly stable water temperature of the spring throughout the year (between ~ 16-18 degrees C, or ~ 61-64 degrees F), and, 2) dissolved oxygen levels normally remain above the critical 5 ppm minimum level that is mandated by ADEM to maintain healthy populations of fish and other aquatic life, though there have been a few times when levels have dropped below this level.
Eight years of continuous monthly monitoring data (99 monthly records; water temperature and dissolved oxygen) from AWW site 10009004, Roebuck Springs in Jefferson County, submitted by Marty and his fellow Birmingham Environmental Clearinghouse monitors. Of note are 1) highly stable water temperature of the spring throughout the year (between ~ 16-18 degrees C, or ~ 61-64 degrees F), and, 2) dissolved oxygen levels normally remain above the critical 5 ppm minimum level that is mandated by ADEM to maintain healthy populations of fish and other aquatic life, though there have been a few times when levels have dropped below this level.

That same fall, the city removed a beaver dam just upstream of that culvert, with disastrous effects on the darter population: the rapid dewatering stranded and killed 11,760 watercress darters, one of the largest fish kills in the history of the Endangered Species Act. In the lawsuit brought against the city by the Fish & Wildlife Service, the city managed to avoid the heavy fine sought, and settled for just under a fine of $183,000.

Brook Fluker, then a University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa graduate student, authored a paper on the dam removal that was published in the 2009 Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies: “Impacts of a Small Dam Removal on the Endangered Watercress Darter”. Besides Scot Duncan and his major professor, Bernard R. Kuhajda, then curator of the fish collection at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Liz Brooke and I were named as coauthors – how gratifying to be so named in recognition of our contribution as citizen scientists to Brook’s peer-reviewed paper!

Who says that water monitoring cannot be fun!  Liz Brooke returning from water testing at the old mill at ***
Who says that water monitoring cannot be fun! Liz Brooke returning from water testing at Roebuck Springs near the old pump house on the Vacca campus of the state’s Boys Industrial School, a reform school that is part of the state prison system.

In the fall of 2009, I expanded my efforts by beginning to monitor two more locations where the same fish is found, since Scot, with Brenda Hamer, who had been monitoring those sites, were no longer able to do so. Had I not been willing to monitor them, the WDMP would have been severely impaired. By the way, it should be noted that the program calls for monitoring at two places on each location, on the same day (within 10 AM-2 PM timeframe); the point at which the water comes out of the spring, and a point about 1/4 mile downstream. So now I actually monitor at three pair of sites. While AWW protocol allows skipping a couple of months each year (I think two), the WDMP calls for monitoring every month, regardless of who the monitor is. Thus, now I personally generate nearly 72 test records a year.

In 2012, I again got to see the impact of my monitoring efforts. Five years after beginning to monitor the Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge in Bessemer, I couldn’t find any measurable DO. When fixing the DO sample, there was no color change when adding the Manganese Sulfate and Alkaline Potassium Iodide; nor any “ink” (navy blue color) produced when I added starch. Over the next several months, I performed DO tests using samples taken from multiple locations in that spring pool and at two different depths when possible in order to determine the extent of the no-DO issue. Fortunately, the no-DO issue was only occurring in the shallow margins of the spring pool, so thankfully, the darter wasn’t under an immediate threat.

Will Duncan (yes, he is related to Scot, they are brothers), who is an aquatic biologist with US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), along with Sarah Clardy who is the FWS Refuge Manager for not only Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge but also Mountain Longleaf Pine Refuge in Anniston and the Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge in West Blocton, responded and we all will began doing flow studies, water level measuring, etc. That is still in progress as all the variables (such as rainfall) are considered. There was also a separate all-day meeting that Will called to consider all the options and issues at the WDNWR. So lots going on, for which I’m at least partly responsible.

While the no-DO issue at the WDNWR is certainly one of the more noteworthy ones that my water monitoring has produced, Scot has repeatedly maintained that just having boots on the ground regularly to see what’s happening at these sites has been just as important. At the Seven Springs site, I 1st noticed the road adjacent to the spring run flooded because of newly constructed beaver dams. In addition to causing a road hazard, the beavers also stripped all the aquatic vegetation that the darter requires for shelter, etc. They used it to reinforce their dams, but in so doing, made the spring run uninhabitable for the darters and none were found in that run about a year ago as a result. Now that the beaver have been removed/relocated and their dams breached, aquatic vegetation is slowly returning. Current plans are to clear the overstory on the bank so the spring run gets more sunlight, thus increasing the aquatic vegetation the darter needs.

Besides some quite specific issues, as outlined above, monitoring gives me a chance to legitimately be places few get to be, much of the time in rather pleasant conditions (weather, etc. – though sometimes in the winter months, it ain’t necessarily so). Honestly though, it’s the incredible people I get to be with because of the entire project. I’m loving being a part of it all and doing whatever I can to support all those scientists, resource managers and those fabulous darters! I feel like my efforts at stewardship are making a difference!