Monitoring Streams

Streams are an integral part of nature’s water cycle and a vital source of fresh water. Streams act as arteries for the movement of materials through the landscape. And so, a stream can reveal not only the condition of fresh water, but also the condition of the environment through which it runs.

What Is It?

By observing the physical, biological, and chemical changes in and along a stream, you can become familiar with the natural processes that keep a stream ecosystem healthy, and recognize how land use practices affect these processes.Image

Who Does It?

Stream monitoring can easily be done by one person, but it can be a fun activity for families or with neighbors. Plus, working with others gives you a venue for sharing the things you observe. Community partnerships—such as with your local school, agricultural groups, or an agency biologist—can expand your understanding beyond what is happening on the portion of stream that flows through your farm to what is happening at the watershed level.


Physical conditions are most easily monitored during July or August when stream flow is lower. Interesting things can also be learned from examining the stream after a big storm and during each of the four seasons. Different insects emerge at different times throughout the summer and could be sampled several times, such as late May, early July, and mid-August. The main thing is to be consistent from year to year.

Time Required

As little as a few hours a year is sufficient to identify stream organisms and collect information about the stability of streambanks and the condition of the streambed. However, the more time you put into your monitoring program, the more you can learn. Allow yourself the time needed to achieve your objectives and to have fun.

Materials and Cost

Basic supplies such as a plastic tape measure, a yardstick, simple net, and a field notebook might cost less than twenty-five dollars. A pair of inexpensive hip waders will come in handy as well. Reference books and water chemistry equipment needed for a more comprehensive program can be more costly. If intensive monitoring interests you, contact a group already doing stream monitoring to share resources.