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Water Action Volunteers Play Critical Role In Monitoring Wisconsin Streams

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Every summer month for the last 16 years, Dick and Judi Oehler have been coming to this exact spot on the Deerskin River east of Eagle River.

Like always, Judi stands on shore, ready with a clipboard, as Dick steps into the stream. Waders cover him to his chest.

The river is about 20 feet across here, and the water comes up to his knees.

Plunging a yard stick to the sandy bottom, Dick calls out water depths as Judi records them.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Dick and Judy Oehler, who have served as Water Action Volunteers for 16 years.

It’s a scene they’ve repeated again and again on this undeveloped piece of the Deerskin River. They live downstream, where there are a few more homes. At this monitoring spot, there’s no hint of development or human presence.

“We’ve canoed this river for probably 50 years,” Judi says. “When we decided to retire up here and we found a piece of property on the Deerskin, we purchased it and built our home. It was a no-brainer.”

“It speaks to us,” Dick says of the river.

Although they’ve been canoeing here for perhaps five decades, their work as part of a statewide network of Water Action Volunteers began 16 years ago.

Their water quality and quantity measurements are precise, but don’t require expensive equipment.

For example, Dick measures the river’s flow by tossing a tennis ball upstream and timing how long it takes to return.

More than 500 Water Action Volunteers work across Wisconsin, focusing on streams and small rivers.

“We often think of the Northwoods as the beautiful, pristine lakes that need protection and monitoring,” said Peggy Compton, who works for UW-Extension and helps manage the Water Action Volunteer program. “We actually need to also be thinking about the streams and rivers up north that are part of that bigger system.”

Credit Bob Jozwowski
Peggy Compton conducts a Water Action Volunteers training near Waupaca.

On hundreds of streams, volunteers measure what’s called baseline data on a monthly basis.

“Ten or fifteen or twenty years from now, we won’t know how much it has changed, if it has changed, if we don’t have that baseline information,” Compton said.

The information includes stream width, depth, flow, dissolved oxygen, and several other data points. The measures are used by DNR scientists to observe trends, set policy, and even complete mandatory reporting for the EPA.

Today’s data is made even more important in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

“That historical data, the importance of it just can’t be understated, because you can’t ever go back,” Compton said.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Dick and Judi Oehler stretch a marked string between streambanks. It helps measure the stream's width and depth.

Dick and Judi Oehler are some of the most amazing volunteers Cathy Higley has encountered, she said.

Higley is a conservationist working for Vilas County.

“I could not do this, what I do, or what we get accomplished, without the volunteers,” she said. “Absolutely not. We need them.”

But Vilas County needs more people willing to be Water Action Volunteers.

“We need people to gather this data. There are just not enough people out there that are professionals to get enough data,” said Higley.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Dick Oehler catches macroinvertebrates on the Deerskin River. A greater diversity of creatures indicates a healthier river.

Back on the Deerskin River, the Oehlers have collected the water measurements they need for this month.

Now, Dick takes out a net. He’s going fishing.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
A water-level view of the Deerskin River.

“Now I’m going to try to collect macroinvertebrates,” he says. “Those are the little insects before they become bugs and fly around.”

Each sweep of the net in the water collects plenty of sand and twigs, but some living creatures, too. The larvae of mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies are common.

Each found creature results in a point value on a score sheet. Some macroinvertebrates are less tolerant of pollution, so if they're found, it's an indication of a healthy stream.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The macroinvertebrates commonly found in the Deerskin River include the larvae of several species of native flies.

After carefully collecting and cataloguing the macroinvertebrates, Dick and Judi are done for the day.

But they’ll be back next month to start all over again.

“The number one motivator of volunteers in the Water Action Volunteers program is they want to make a difference,” said Compton, the program organizer.

It’s true, Dick Oehler says.

He’s 80 years old, but his measurements will live for decades to come.

“Your reward is the fact that we look at it like, we’ve got 16 years of data,” he says. “Thirty years, forty years from now, that may be very useful.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The Deerskin River.

The Water Action Volunteers has a special need for volunteers in the Northwoods.

If you’d like to learn more, follow this link.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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