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Stream Explorers . . . explore streams!

Kick net? Check. Ice cube tray? Check. Tiny paintbrush to help pick up tiny water bugs? Check! 

Armed with these tools, volunteers embarked on treasure hunts as part of the Maine Stream Explorers, a community science project that Maine Audubon launched in partnership with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Lakes Environmental Association (LEA), and the Portland Water District (PWD) this summer. 

In August, September and October, trained volunteers surveyed 26 streams that eventually feed into Sebago Lake. Sebago Lake, the second largest lake in Maine, provides water for over 200,000 people, or about 16% of the state’s population. 

What were volunteers searching for? Treasures like Log-cabin Caddisflies, Little Stout Crawlers, and Water Pennies, as well as 43 other aquatic macroinvertebrates that help us identify streams with high, moderate, or poor water quality. Some macroinvertebrates are more sensitive to water pollution while others are less sensitive, making all these critters excellent indicators of water health.

Volunteers took part in two online training sessions, followed by an outdoor open house with live specimens at LEA’s Science Center. A Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund grant provided initial funding, and DEP, LEA, and PWD supplied equipment, time, and talent, for all the training. Before heading out into the field, volunteers were provided with an illustrated training manual, identification key, data forms, and survey kits.

So what did we learn from the first season of stream exploring? Based on an initial review of the data, volunteers seemed to accurately identify specimens; at least five streams had highly sensitive inverts; four had moderately sensitive inverts; and several had only less sensitive inverts, meaning those streams are considered impaired and in need of restoration. Many of the streams were surveyed for the first time, so the DEP can now use the data collected to prioritize where to survey in the future and possibly to propose an upgrade in the water quality goal the stream should try to meet. Community scientists are helping improve Maine’s streams!

Not only did Maine Stream Explorers identify important water quality indicators, stories of adventure and discovery ran rampant. From finding out-of-place skeletal remains (animal, of course…) to tackling streams that were more mud than water, volunteers waded rubber-boots-first into this program! 

We’re thankful to the 24 volunteers who contributed more than 50 volunteer hours during our 2020 Stream Explorers season, and we are excited to expand the program next year. In 2021, we will be repeating some of the surveys in the Sebago Lake Watershed to collect long-term data, and conducting surveys in the Auburn Lake Watershed, the 35 towns LEA services in and around Bridgton, and possibly other areas in Cumberland County. 

We welcome additional partners and volunteers! If you’d like to learn more about the program, sign up to volunteer, or be notified of training sessions in 2021, please email Hannah Young at Visit the Maine Stream Explorers webpage for more information.