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Texas Stream Team Stories

Texas Stream Team: A Place for Community Scientists, Water Enthusiasts and River Rubberneckers

Headshot of Mike Bira, long-time supporter of the Texas Stream Team program and former EPA employee

Mike Bira

"I found it very inspiring to see these people who were taking time out of their lives as volunteers to benefit society and to benefit the agencies and save a lot of resources on getting the data that we desperately need."

Picture yourself heading out to face the day. There may be that one special creek you pass over that prompts you to tap the brakes and crank your head to the right to catch a brief glimpse of its presence. In turn, you remember to lay off the pedal and take a deep breath. Is the creek full… dry… raging… steady... healthy... or there at all anymore? You, my friend, are what we like to call a river rubbernecker.  

Texas Stream Team community scientists often seize the opportunity to receive training in monitoring water quality, all while keeping a favorite river in mind. They seek to deepen their understanding of a beloved stream, delving into details about its origin and potential threats. Is it safe to wade or swim? Who are its keepers? 

Texas Stream Team at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment is dedicated to understanding and protecting the 191,000 miles of Texas waterways. We bring together community members, students, educators, academic researchers, environmental professionals, and both public and private sector partners to conduct scientific research, promote environmental stewardship and ensure clean and safe water for current and future generations. 

Participating in a Texas Stream Team community scientist water quality monitoring empowers community members to become river guardians in a single 4-hour training session and a subsequent commitment of one hour of monitoring per month. They are trained to measure basic water quality parameters and conduct field observations. Monitoring water quality and making observations about their surrounding environment serve as invaluable tools for comprehending the overall health of a river and its encompassing watershed, while also enabling them to be an advocate within their community. 

Texas Stream Team staff and partners have trained over 12,000 Texans to monitor Texas waterways over the past 31 years. Through this span of time, Texas Stream Team community scientists have formed friendships, made lasting memories and saved rivers in the process. Many community scientists have discovered disturbing bacteria counts, oil sheens, chalky residues, fish kills and more as a result of significant pollution events that, otherwise, may have remained undetected for weeks, months, or years if at all (Table 1). Others have consistently monitored the same site month after month with no pollution events to report, and that’s a very good thing!  

Table 1. Pollution Events Discovered
Theme Significant Statements
Direct Anthropogenic Depositions Partners drive vehicles in the river, stirring up the sediments and clouding the water far downstream.
Just trash.
People had started to dump household trash into the gulley where I was sampling. Their name was on, and they were contacted to clean it up.
Have reported numerous dumping issues alongside the river, have reported trucks dumping in the river, have reported trucks washing out their tanks in the river and have personally spoken to people washing their dogs in the river.
Infrastructure, including wastewater Soapy water coming from apartments.
Sewage leak in the Dixon Branch, water main break in Ash Creek.
Very low dissolved oxygen (2.0 mg/L and less), high phosphate levels, downstream from wastewater plant.
E. coli was found and a pipe upstream as the problem.
Industry/development Fish kill due to improper barriers for run off from local excavation company.
There are orphan wells flowing 24/7 into the Pecos River. The water is more salty than sea water.
Two events: 1) an unknown oil sheen. 2) a fire at an upstream fabric recycling center.
Development and construction waste washing down the waterways.
Unknown source On West Oso Creek there was a regular occurrence of nutrient dumping that created a breeding ground for frogs/toads.
High bacteria.
Staff investigates concerns from our volunteers and anomalies in data. Concerns have included low dissolved oxygen, high turbidity, high algae, illegal dumping, and changes in benthic macroinvertebrates.
Once there was an E.coli "spill"/leak that our trainings picked up.
Wildlife Wild pig activity contributing to high E. coli counts, seasonal.
Feral Hogs

Texas Stream Team water quality data supports academic research, informs policy, and serves as a de facto early warning system for Texas river systems. Community scientists are considered first responders because they are often the eyes and ears of the river that fill in the gaps of professional water quality monitoring efforts. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 20% of rivers undergo professional monitoring on a quarterly or annual basis. That leaves a lot of room for those who know their local creeks and rivers best to play a pivotal role in their protection (Table 2).

Table 2. Advocating with Data
Theme Significant Statements
Education and Raising Awareness Several of us help teach Citizen Science at River Bend Nature Center in Wichita Falls to school students. It has given me an opportunity to help young people to understand the importance of our waters.
Explain to friends and family about the effects of littering and residential runoff.
If I meet folks when I am out gathering water samples, they are always glad to see the water being tested & are curious. I try to advocate for water conservation, especially this year.
I share mine and my children's testing experience with friends and high school teachers and students, raise the awareness of local water protection, and encourage participation in volunteering.
Community Action Our data from water testing has been presented to the City of Coppell to monitor changes in the water quality of Coppell's bodies of water.
As a city employee we used the data to fight fracking, to develop policies that increase natural buffer zones and preservation of native land.
A friend was concerned about a new development planned in south Austin and I suggested the group consider establishing a monitoring site downstream of the planned project prior to the project even starting.
We have submitted data to TCEQ wastewater hearings as supplemental information and our data has been used to show improvements in erosion along Sessoms Creek
Baseline Data We have not had to in the past, but two water treatment plants are being built that will affect one way or the other, and we are watching.
I've thoroughly enjoyed the handful of samplings I've done. I hope my ongoing figures will contribute to more significant data that will improve urban planning.
The data from my site was compared to the site at Sessom Creek (only about 100 feet downstream from the dam) to show increased sediments caused by construction up Sessoms Road.
Galveston Bay report card.

Texas Stream Team staff initiated a study in 2023 to seek a deeper understanding of the impact of Texas Stream Team community scientist experiences. We invited community scientists from our email distribution list to complete a qualitative survey via Qualtrics. The survey was also publicized in the Texas Stream Team December 2022 newsletter.  

Key survey components included how community scientists became involved (Table 3), if they had discovered a pollution event or used the data for advocacy purposes, and if participation brought joy/happiness, and/or impacted their careers (Table 1). The survey contained yes/no questions regarding the discovery of a pollution event, career impacts, desire to share a memory, use the date, etc., and if “yes” was selected, they were prompted to describe how via a free response. The survey concluded with an interview opt-in. 

Table 3. Frequency counts from open-ended survey questions
Question Count Distribution (%)
How did you first learn about Texas Stream Team?
Colleague 8 3%
College 40 14%
Environmental Organization 104 36%
Family 11 4%
Friend 17 6%
High School 7 2%
Job 12 4%
Job Duties 13 4%
Media Promotion 4 1%
Non-Texas Stream Team Event 8 3%
Online (general search) 26 9%
Texas Stream Team 42 14%
What initially prompted your involvement?1
Personal Development 58 20%
Environmental Concern 44 15%
Environmental Organization 16 5%
Family 7 2%
Ability to make an Impact 57 20%
Job duties 3 1%
Leisure 126 43%
School Duties 12 4%
Texas Stream Team Outreach 10 3%
Volunteerism 15 5%
What is the most interesting thing you have observed while monitoring?1
Data Spike 21 9%
Data Trends 83 36%
Hydro-geomorphology 12 5%
Environment 12 5%
Other 1 0%
Pollution 25 11%
Public Interest 24 10%
Restoration 3 1%
Wildlife 78 34%
What aspects of participating if any, bring you joy/happiness?1
Community 30 12%
Connection 65 25%
Environment 81 32%
Impact 145 57%
Learning 27 11%

1Multiple reasons reported.

Those who completed the interview opt-in were contacted for a 30-minute conversation with Texas Stream Team staff. From January to April 2023, staff conducted a series of guided interviews (Litchman, 2009, p. 141) or semi-structured interviews (Qu & Dumay, 2011). Similar questions from the survey were asked, which enabled community scientists to respond in greater detail, and in-conversation probes were used to solicit more elaborate responses for rich data (Qu & Dumay, 2011, p. 241).  

The overall findings of this research will be released upon publication.

  • The Texas Stream Team made me very interested in conducting scientific procedures to gather data and the research inspired me a lot to perhaps take an interest in studying biology and/or environmental sciences. 


    I enjoyed being involved so much that I ended up going to graduate school and now work in water conservation in the hill country. 


    I am consistently approached by random members of the public who thank me for sampling and monitoring the health of local waterways. 


    I have met so many fascinating people- I am encouraged by people's willingness to do this type of citizen science, but the funniest memory is the day some people in the parks watching me testing gave me a bottle of wine to thank me for testing! That was different! Ive seen eagles, fish kills, huge snakes, once a school of gars (and gars mating) and watched the river flow rise and fall. 


    My favorite memories will be sharing the time with my friends, holding onto people's belt loops as they hang over the banks of the creek to fill the buckets with water, and spending the afternoons together. 


    We referenced data collected at city council meetings to advocate for more substantial practices. 


    Almost every outing we meet people who ask "What are you doing/finding." Explaining our roles and how the data may be useful is rewarding.   

  • Litchman, M., 2009, Qualitative Research in Education: A User’s Guide, 2nd Edition, p. 141. 

    Qu, S.Q. and Dumay, J., 2011. The qualitative research interview. Qualitative research in accounting & management, 8(3), pp.238-264. 

This project is funded in part through a federal Clean Water Act (CWA) 319(h) grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is administered by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.